Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Tale of Two Pantries - In Two Parts

Last month, someone gave me the name of a "marvelous" food pantry in a neighboring, larger city where the clients get to choose their own food. I decided to check it out even though after I looked at the web site, I saw that I would not qualify for services since this pantry operates under strict Federal income guidelines - with the pension, we are about $300.00 over the amount that would entitle us to food stamps or emergency food assistance at some pantries.

When I got to the place, it reminded me of a warehouse like Sam's Club. The bread section alone looked like a bakery. There was an abundance of food and about 75 people ahead of me waiting for a turn to choose their food. I was seen earlier since I mentioned right away that my income was higher than the client requirement. The director of the pantry, an elegant, attractive woman of about 60, sympathized with me but said I would only be able to receive what they termed the limited assistance they provide to those with higher incomes. She said that at one time in her life she was in a situation very similar to mine. I asked her what she did to survive, and she replied, "Just what you are already doing, creative meal planning, scrimping, etc."

The food I would be entitled to that day included my choice of 10 items from three shelves. On these shelves were the following items: canned beef stew, chili beans, off brand chicken & rice soup, off brand tomato soup, peanut butter (no jelly) and off brand toasted oat cereal. You can imagine my dismay at this selection because this is what I get visiting my local pantry. But I went ahead and took some of the soup, beans and peanut butter. We don't eat beef so no stew - there aren't a lot of other options as we are such a beef eating country but a can of tuna would have been appreciated.

They threw in some extra items - four loaves of bread and two desserts, including 24 cupcakes decorated in a Thanksgiving theme which was very nice - half chocolate, half vanilla - we still have 4 left. They also offered me a bag of apples and carrots and even provided me with a frozen smoked turkey when they found out we don't eat beef so I didn't leave empty handed. But it was disappointing, especially looking at the massive shelves of available food and even the sign on a stack of Hamburger/Tuna Helper that said clients could take up to six! And people living in this city get to go to the pantry twice a month (those living elsewhere, once).

At the pantry I go to, I receive pretty much the same fare each time which includes: a can of tuna (sometimes), 2 boxes of mac & cheese, dried beans, rice, a box of instant potatoes, a bottle of cooking oil, pancake mix, syrup, canned spaghetti sauce, spaghetti noodles, 2-4 cans of soup, peanut butter, jelly, and a can or two of fruit and vegetables. Sometimes there is bread and meat - sometimes, not always. Every other month I can receive a box of powder laundry detergent sold at the dollar store for a dollar - this is what I buy anyway, I am so cheap. Once in awhile there will be something extra like a box of taco shells, cheese or fresh vegetables, e.g., being able to take 3 small baked potatoes. There are days after going to this pantry that I wonder why I even go. Then I feel bad for not being grateful at what I received. I thought it was me until one time I overheard a young woman saying how little had been received. "That's all?"

It's hard eating mashed potatoes without gravy or a meat accompaniment. I currently have more canned soup and peanut butter in the pantry than I want to look at (17 jars of peanut butter), along with 8 boxes of mac & cheese even though we eat a few boxes every week. There is just so much chicken noodle soup you can eat. There is definitely no variety and a terrible lack of fresh food items. And I despise lentil beans. So a lot of this stuff has just remained in the pantry. I try to come up with recipes that will use some of items and I have left some in the laundry area of my building to pass on. But it is clear that even if someone had only this selection of items to eat, that it wouldn't last more than a few meals anyway. This pantry allows you to go only once a month, so how do poor people get through the rest of the month? I've heard of pantry hopping.

Which gets me to wondering, how does this pantry in the other town have so much more and a better variety than the one in my town? Let me add, no one goes to a food pantry willingly. I want to be able to choose my own food, not be handed a box of discards or dented cans. Many times the items received are past code by a number of months. Depending on what it is I usually eat it. The church ladies at the pantry have been condescending to me, especially the older ones. There is the pervasive belief in our country that people are poor because of some deformity or flaw with them - not that an unfortunate situation or circumstance had some impact.

I cried the first few times going to the pantry. Now I don't cry but every time I enter the parking lot I say a prayer that I'll never have to go there again.

All Americans should have access to food. Despite my pension, we didn't have any available money left over for food in November. In the middle of the month I had to write two hot checks at the grocery store to make ends meet ($60.00 each). The bank paid the grocery store but charged me fees which catch up with me now this month and are putting me behind before December even arrives, and starting the whole cycle over again.

To be continued in Part Two.


  1. My jaw dropped reading this post. I do have to stop reading your blog - I read it because I keep thinking you will get your act together or something magnificent will happen to you and want to hear you happy and settled. I now know that that will never happen. You won't allow it. No one owes you a damn thing. You got the short straw in life, that is a horrible thing but it is even more horrible how you have dealt with it.

  2. A - If you make a comment like this it would be appreciated if you might advise how exactly I am supposed to be dealing with my life as you see it? What bothered you so much about this post and who are you to pass judgment? By all means stop reading my blog if it upsets you so much.

  3. Apparently your post really triggered something in Anonymous but please remember this is their problem, not yours. It takes a certain kind of cowardice to comment on a blog like that so I am guessing it's highly unlikely Anonymous will take the time to learn anything from their negativity. You are very brave to share yourself the way that you do. We, as readers, are entitled to our opinions, but we absolutely must respect each other and move on when we can no longer learn anything from the blogs that we visit. Keep your chin up! There are readers who care! -Seventies Girl

  4. Seventies Girl - I appreciate your comment and I agree that all of us are entitled to our opinions. However, My own jaw dropped at the insensitive harshness of A's reply to me. I've sometimes disagreed with how other widows are handling their grief or where they are in their process but would never leave such a disparaging comment on their blogs, knowing that their lives are already painful enough.

    One thing I have learned through all of this is that we are all too quick to judge. And that kindness and compassion far outweigh our pointing fingers and shaking our heads. A word of encouragement while stating one's opinion goes so much farther.

    If anything, A. reminded me of my own humanity and gave me the courage to try and be more kind to others, especially during this season. So I can thank her for that.

  5. People have different kinds of temperaments, and some people have a tendency to get infuriated by other people who don't think/behave similarly to how they would. (I suffer from this myself a little, and that's one of the reasons I like to read blogs about the experiences of others... to put myself in others' shoes and to imagine a different kind of life without judgment and with compassion. I also get that from literature.)

    This poster wants some sort of Hollywood ending and is impatient that it isn't happening, and that you aren't somehow inspiring him/her in the way he/she wants to be inspired. To him/her I say: plenty of sappy fiction out there with one-dimensional heroes and tearjerker endings. Here is a person reporting truthfully on her reality, warts and all, so either appreciate her honesty and acknowledge and respect that each human being has their own unique way of interacting with the world, for better or for worse....or stop reading. --ARB

  6. ARB - You said it very well. I have to admit I was curious why you would read this blog and thank you for explaining that. The funny thing is, I really thought I was doing a better job of trying to be more upbeat and "happy" in my circumstances. Thank you again for your own honesty and kindness.

  7. Although I do not agree with the harshness of the original A post, I suppose I can agree with the gist of the message. I read your blog as often as I am able, along with other blogs. I, too, am always hopeful that there is some creative improvements to your and your boys' situation. A couple of things I had thought you might have touched on would be an indoor greenhouse of sorts to grow some fresh vegetables for your family. Or reading about your sons needing money and shoes for school activities, I was hoping you would share that they had seasonal jobs or even part time jobs to help out. I cannot remember if you were able to get a job or not, but even so your boys are old enough that you could take an extra seasonal or part time job yourself. Not ideal I'm sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

    I do appreciate you sharing the plight of the hungry in our country. It is very sad indeed.

  8. Dear Friend: Wow, I am a shocked at what has been written. This is YOUR blog and you may share what is going on in your life. I have been amazed at your resiliency in the most difficult of situations. You work at a very demanding job, you find creative ways of supplying the needs for your family, you care deeply for your sons and what's best for them, all on top of the grief and loss you have sustained. Those who have not gone through the loss of a spouse cannot get it, the struggle that goes on, even years out. Sometimes it is harder as time goes on than easier. I think you have done an amazing job and what is even more admirable is that you keep going, one foot in front of the other. Everyone can offer their ideas as to how to deal with a situation, but until you have lived it, advice can sometimes be useless. You keep sharing and don't let others' tactless comments get to you. I admire your spunk and your determination. You ARE going to make it!

    P.S. Life is not a Hallmark movie!

  9. P.S.S. Have you decided whether you are going to the knitting group? I do hope so, you would be a wonderful asset to the group!

  10. #2 A - Thank you for commenting. One of the aspects of my life that I have tried to convey is that when you have suffered loss and losses whether they be from a spouse's death, job termination, or having to move, you are at a reduced state of coping and even living. Hardly at your best to be brainstorming creatively! Sometimes it is difficult to just get up and face the day. Not to mention the stress and strain that can result in actual physical symptoms.

    Anyway, both my sons had seasonal jobs this summer. We are in a very hard hit area job-wise and most high schoolers and college-aged kids here couldn't find work, much less the adults. I didn't blog much about my oldest son's experiences - one job was utterly awful where he was dropped off in an residential area miles away on the hottest day of the year trying to generate leads for a home improvement company. He had no water bottle and walked to a park hoping to find a water fountain and there wasn't one. I was out of town and he was staying with my girlfriend when he called me 230 miles away. I told him to ask for a drink of water at someone's house. It was a miserable experience but this kid stuck it out and was never paid - he was taken advantage of. He had no idea he was going to be dropped off like that and the adult with him was irresponsible to do so without advising him and providing water.

    With football season ended, he has applied all over with no interest in hiring him - his gorgeous girlfriend also lost her job and has not been hired including Victoria's Secret with an advertised opening which she would have been perfect at. These are two cream of the crop high school kids - popular and good looking being passed over or not given opportunities because there are no openings.

    I did think about trying to sell knitted potholders but have never considered an indoor greenhouse because I have a black thumb for indoor plants. Do you have to have window and sun exposure? What is the cost of something like this? I do my best creatively to come up with edible bean recipes my sons will tolerate eating. And that to me counts for something!

  11. Dearest Friend - Oh thank you for writing because I know you know where I am coming from. Yes, it can become harder before it gets easier! We live in this crazy society that expects us to just get back up, dust ourselves off and go along on our merry way. I think as things get worse economically more people will become sympathetic to the fallen. In the meantime, I'm trying to hang in there although at times like this I want to throw in the blog towel. Anyway, it is very, very cold and snowy here and I think it best not to start the knitting club tonight - they are celebrating a bunch of birthdays and I feel as though I would be intruding/imposing. I am not wimping out. I really believe there is a right time and place to start things. I see the new year as the right time to join a group like this. Oh, gosh, I hope somebody doesn't blast me for this too (just kidding!). Hope to communicate with you again soon - you have sustained my hope and sanity today!

  12. In response to your question about the costs, honestly I do not know the answer. I did find this which is close to you if I remember correctly.


    It might be a good source of information, or at least something to consider. As far as cost, I have no idea. An indoor garden has always appealed to me for freshness, variety and year round availability but I have not pursued it.

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  14. I hadn't read this blog as of yet, but have been there in my life so many times, I am afraid to count. Thank you for sharing this. I thought that I was alone with this. I have done pretty much what you have during the month to survive, and wonder how we will get through to the next. Instead of all that peanut butter, we have a supply of black olives (around 14 cans). I too worry because of the lack of fresh ingredients in our diets. When you spoke about how the people treat you when you are there, I cried. I feel so down after leaving a food pantry because I am humiliated.
    I know you are striving for things to be better, and in many ways you are pursuing them positively. Our lives aren't perfect, and there are some areas that will take longer. The financial area for anyone is hard now-a-days but I think for widows/widowers it is worse. We lost not only a husband/wife, but a person who brought income into the household along with us. Take that income away, and see the house of cards fall really fast. I don't see why people are surprised when they hear of the financial strife you go through, it is part of the problem when you lose a loved one.
    Thank you for your prayers for my family and myself, especially during the holidays. You are always in my prayers as well.

  15. Jeane - 14 cans of black olives? How bizarre but I am laughing! I have never received any olives. As of Jan., it will be one year that I have had to go to food pantries to survive. I agree with you - why is it so surprising to others that widows/widowers are suffering financially? What is even harder is the lack of emotional/physical support available to us. We end up doing the job that used to be accomplished by two. We are sometimes bone weary at the end of the day and I suffer from countless headaches from stress and worry. Then I start worrying about liver damage from popping so many pain relievers! Your observation about how quickly the house of cards can tumble is also accurate. Plus, it takes time to rebuild. While we're trying to do so, we still have to survive and eat.

    I debated posting about this at all but am glad I did if for only the reason that it reached you and you could know that you are not alone. The first few times I went to pantries I actually sobbed as I picked up the food (it is that humiliating and hard). Now I don't cry but like you feel down after going there. No one wants to go to a pantry but I remind myself that everything I am doing is for the benefit of my sons and that makes it a little easier for me right now.