Without agency

My first food bank experience

February 2006

(The author of this essay has asked to remain anonymous.)

A box of Life cereal.

Two cans of tuna.

A couple of smashed boxes of diet jello.

Two heads of iceberg lettuce.

A bag of crusty buns.

A large tin can with the label removed.

A bag of smashed muffins.

A head of cauliflower.

A small bag of what appeared to be potatoes.

A loaf of bread with today’s expiry date.

No brown eggs.”

TODAY I HAD MY FIRST FOOD BANK experience. I can’t remember ever being through anything more humiliating.

First, the call. “Your food will be ready at 4:00 on Friday.” A kind pastor had signed us up, but cautioned, “To be honest, some of the food won’t be worth keeping—-you’ll throw it away.”

As I drove into the graveled parking lot of a large, run-down warehouse, I wondered what the Food Bank would have for us. Two boys on bicycle-pedaled ice cream carts stood outside. A large white van was parked in the lot. “Feeding the Future,” it said on the side. “What future?” I thought to myself. Then I saw a sign. “Food Drop Offs. Food Pickups—-Agencies.”

I saw a woman carrying a large tray of brown eggs. My heart leapt a little and I felt hopeful. Maybe we’d get some EGGS. Brown eggs at that. I missed the brown eggs we used to get at the farm. I approached her hesitantly. “I’m here for a pickup,” I said. “I’ve never been here before.”

She spoke in an accent I didn’t recognize and pointed to the other door. I was a little disappointed. I guessed I wasn’t an agency.

Inside the dimly lit building, I noticed another sign—-“Pickups Here”—-and approached the counter. After a while, a brown-eyed gentleman walked over. “Are you here for a food pickup?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I noticed he was wearing a gold cross.

“Do you have your health card?” he asked.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to bring it.”

“We’ll let it go this time,” he said, “but every time after this you’ll have to bring it with you to get your food.”

“Okay,” I replied.

He checked something off on the blue form. “Sign here,” he said and pushed the ledger toward me.

“I’ll push your food through on the ramp,” he said. I nodded, feeling numb. “Pick it up on the other side and put it in the bags. You can take anything else you want that’s out there.”

I walked slowly around the wall to the area he had indicated and he pushed a single green plastic box with some items in it through a flap.

I lifted the box off the ramp and set it down on a table so I could see what was inside. A box of Life cereal. So far so good. Two cans of tuna. We could use those. A couple of smashed boxes of diet jello. Questionable. Two heads of iceberg lettuce. Great—-I’d wanted to make a salad for supper. One of the heads looked like it might be okay. A bag of crusty buns. A large tin can with the label removed. A bag of smashed muffins of some kind. A head of cauliflower. A small bag of what appeared to be potatoes. A loaf of bread with today’s expiry date. No brown eggs.

I packed my groceries into bags and looked around to see what else might be available on the racks. I noticed a box of green and red bell peppers. “Great,” I thought. “Those are expensive in the stores.” I walked over to check out the produce more carefully and was met by a swarm of fruit flies. Most of the peppers were smashed, wrinkly, or moldy. I felt sick to my stomach as I dug through the box in search of one or two that might be acceptable. I finally did find one green one and one red one that didn’t look too bad, except for the odd spot or two I thought I could cut off. The box next to the peppers contained wilted lettuce heads. I looked around a bit more and found a squash of some unknown variety, which I decided to take home and try.

I looked through the baking rack and found a half-dozen bagels in a clear plastic bag. I wondered what kind they were. It didn’t say. I also wondered how old they were. It didn’t say that, either. I decided to take a chance and put them in with my other groceries.

Just then, a large woman approached me and tapped the label-less tin can with her finger. She looked as if she’d just found a treasure of some kind, from the gleam in her eye. She tapped it again. “That’s soup,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied. (She looked at me as if I should have known that.)

She picked up the can and shook it, holding it next to her ear. “Probably mushroom, I’d think,” she said knowingly.

“Oh,” I said again, not knowing what else to say. I noticed the can was dented and decided to leave it behind with the smashed muffins and jello boxes. Well, at least the pastor had warned me.

“How often do you come?” I asked, trying to be friendly.

“Once a week,” she said. “Same time every week. Or depending on what agency you’re with.”

“Agency?” I thought to myself. “I wonder if Pastor Don qualifies as an agency?”

By then I was ready to go. I gathered up my bags and headed for the door. Suddenly, a man approached me from nowhere and stuck a bag of candy in my face. “Got kids?” he asked.

“Um… no. I mean yes,” I mumbled. “But no thanks,” I said, declining his offer.

I’d spent my last five dollars on gas so I’d have enough fuel to get to the food bank.”

The boys on the bicycles were still on the loading docks when I came out. A tall man with a long black ponytail was heading toward the door—-for his food pick-up, I assumed. Two raggedy-clothed children trailed along behind him.

I headed home, thinking to myself, “How would I ever feed my family if this was all I had to live on?”

I didn’t like the thought very much. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. After all, it was something. I’d spent my last five dollars on gas so I’d have enough fuel to get to the food bank. And I guess I did end up with more than five dollars worth of groceries.

I drove home thinking about the clean, spacious, well-lit aisles of the grocery store and the smiling, friendly sales clerks and cashiers. I thought about the incredible selection of food in those stores, and I thought about having the money to buy that kind of food.

And I thought about the people who don’t—-people like me.

The author is a single parent living in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Further reading:

“Dumping and Donating: How Food Banks Can Contribute to an Unsustainable Food System”

Tracey Mitchell (Oxfam Canada)

Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement

by Janet Poppendieck

“Sweet Charity and Food Security: An Interview with Janet Poppendieck.”

World Hunger Year

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