Do You Want Ketchup or Mustard?

The weather here in southeastern Pennsylvania the past couple of weeks has been beautiful, especially after our lingering winter and chilly start to Spring.  This time of year I love watching my yard go from a drab brown to I don’t know how many shades of green.  Every day they yard and woods look different.  Now everyone’s thoughts turn toward summer.  I have overheard moms starting to talk, with both relief and hamburgertrepidation, about the approaching end of the school year.  Other folks are starting to plan summer vacations or daydream about heading to the beach.  And if you are like me, you are eagerly looking forward to the arrival of summer fruits and vegetables, as well as foods cooked on the grill.

Due to the popularity of the holiday treats and warm beverages drives, both with those who have donated and our very grateful clients, I have been wanting to hold a summer food drive.  While trying to figure out what extra food item(s) we should try to offer for the summer, it occurred to me that summer foods require their own special condiments.  Fresh garden salads need salad dressings.  Hot dogs and hamburgers need ketchup, mustard, and maybe relish.  Then there is BBQ, which is in a category all its own.  Even though we get the occasional condiment donation, the food pantry does not supply any of these condiments on a regular basis, so I decided summer condiments would be the perfect choice for my food drive.  Thanks to a recent food drive sponsored by one of our local civic organizations, our food pantry is currently well stocked with a variety of salad dressings.  We do not provide ribs or other types meat one would BBQ, so not all of our clients would have a need for BBQ sauce.  That leaves ketchup and mustard.  We regularly provide hamburger and hot dogs as a meat option, so these condiments seemhot dog mustart like the perfect choice for a summertime food drive.

Starting June 1st I would like to be able to offer our clients the option to take home a bottle of ketchup and/or mustard.  We will need all size bottles of these condiments as we have households of one to nine and all sizes in between.  I would encourage you to stick to regular yellow mustard and plain tomato ketchup.  As with other food drives, I am happy to come and pick up any donations you would like to make.  In advance, I would like to say thank you to those making a donation–from me for helping to make this food drive possible and from our clients.  I am always humbled at the gratitude our clients express when they are offered these little extras.

Advertisements

Trying to Restore Some Dignity

birthday-cakeThe other day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a reposted blog entitled Poor People Deserve to Taste Something Other Than Shame.  In the blog, the author relays her reaction to and feelings about her mother bringing home a Boston cream pie one evening after work.  At the time, the author, her mother, and her brother were living in poverty and receiving food stamps.  As I read the author’s recounting of the event, I understood from the title what she was going to end up emphasizing, but was certainly surprised at her reaction, as a child, to that unexpected treat.  After some some reflection I wondered at my surprise.  Wasn’t her reaction to the treat coming from the same place as the apology we often get at the food pantry from clients, the apology to us from the client because he or she needs to come ask for help?  Both reactions result from a feeling of shame and both reactions break my heart.

I believe that most people consider themselves compassionate, willing to help those in need as much as they are able.  And luckily for organizations like food pantries, many people do give, not only food and other items, but also time and money, to help those in need.  I wonder, however, how many of those people give without question or judgement of the person needing help or the reason he or she is in that situation.  I imagine very few do.  Unconditional giving is difficult, especially if you have had to work hard and sacrifice to have what you do.  I will be the first to admit that I am not always free of judgement, even though it is important to me to remain open minded and learn the story behind the situation.  Remaining non-judgmental is even harder if you are told by others that most of those in poverty find themselves in that situation solely because of bad decisions or that they are lazy, and when you help them you are allowing them to takesteak advantage of you and/or the system.

When you hear this message enough times, spoken by people with authority, like politicians or the media, the message becomes internalized, whether you are person giving the assistance or the person in need of the assistance, and the repercussions of hearing this message are negative for both groups.  Those who are inclined to give may give less to charitable organizations assisting the poor or support politicians who advocate reducing assistance provided by the government, as a result of internalizing this message.  Additionally, when they do give, they may give with an attitude that the recipient should feel grateful for what is given, regardless of their taste for the item (think food), the condition of the item, or their preference/need for something else over the item given.  For those in poverty the repercussions of this message are disastrous.  Not only do they have to cope with the reality of shrinking assistance, whether that is governmental assistance like SNAP or local charitable assistance like food in a food pantry or non-food items like winter coats, but they must struggle with the knowledge that many in society view them as a pariah, which undoubtedly causes feelings of shame and failure.

I am very aware of society’s current attitudes toward those in poverty.  Each time I launch a drive for a special item, like coffee and tea or cookie and brownie mixes, I brace myself for pushback from readers.  I worry about comments like “These items are not necessities.” or “Coffee (tea, brownies or fill in the blank) are luxury items, indulgences.” followed by “Why should I use my hard earned money to pay for someone else to have a luxury?”.  Luckily for me, I have yet to receive any of these comments.  Any person questioning my choice of these items for a food drive would be correct.  The items I have chosen thus far are not staples, and indeed are indulgences, but that is exactly why I have chosen them.  At the food pantry, and I would imagine the same is true for most food pantries, we do not focus on the reason for the need, only that there is a need.  Because we receive state and federal food items to distribute, we do have regulations we need to follow as to who qualifies for assistance and how much we can distribute to each household, but once these requirements are met, all those in need are treated equally with dignity and compassion.

boston cream pieIn addition to being non-judgmental and compassionate, however, we try to offer kindness and restore a little bit of dignity to those who are struggling daily with the weight of poverty.  When we learn about a client facing a particularly difficult situation, we try to brighten that person’s day.  For the grandmother who is raising some of her grandchildren or the caretaker of an ailing family member, we try to slip in a brownie mix or some other special treat if we have them.  We keep on hand some birthday gift bags filled with all the fixings for a birthday party for households where a child is celebrating a birthday, but there is no money for a celebration.  For clients who are cancer patients we give scented lotions and soaps donated from a local store when they rotate their stock. I can tell the aim of offering these niceties is successful in lessening the burden of shame these people carry by the look on the recipient’s face and the thank yous, often said repeatedly, we receive when we let them know about the item. And this is why I have chosen the items I have for my food drives.  I wanted to pick things which would be a treat and would, if only for the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, allow someone in poverty to put down the weight of shame society has asked them to carry and and live like a person worthy of dignity.

#Giving Tuesday

donateToday is #Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving, intended to kickoff the end of year charitable giving season.  This movement was started in 2012 by a group at the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.  The creators hoped to continue the theme of giving, spurred by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, by designating a day to focus on charitable giving.  I wrote a blog post about #Giving Tuesday last year as well, but because I had completely missed the day, the focus of that post was to urge readers to not relegate giving to just one day and to give throughout the year.  I still believe in giving throughout the year, and so while I am encouraging you to give to a charitable organization today, I want to highlight ways you can give to your local food pantry throughout the year.

Giving to food banks and pantries often spikes in November and December as people are moved to be more charitable during the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  As I have been grocery shopping over the past two weeks I have started collecting items for my reverse Advent box, and later in December I will purchase some clothing and toy items to donate to our parent organization as they assist canned veggies drawingfamilies in need at Christmas.  But food pantries need donations throughout the year and are always happy to receive staples, like canned fruit and vegetables, pasta, soups, peanut butter and jelly, and tuna to name a few items.  One consideration to keep in mind when collecting these staple items is to try to find the healthiest versions possible, as people receiving food from a food pantry want, and often need, to eat healthy too.  For instance, when purchasing canned vegetables, soups, and peanut butter look for low and no sodium options.  Try to buy canned fruit packed in light syrup or its own juices and for canned meat, like tuna or chicken, choose those packed in water rather than oil.  Finally, look for hot and cold cereals which are 100% whole grain or at least list a whole grain as the first ingredient.

In addition to dried goods, other food and non-food items may be welcome donations at your local food pantry.  With the same focus on providing healthy food options, many food banks and pantries will accept excess produce from gardens, so the next time you find yourself uncertain as to what you are going to do with 25 pounds of zucchini, consider donating some to your local food pantry.  Additionally, shotgun season for deer just opened here indeer Pennsylvania and through the statewide program Hunters Sharing the Harvest, PA hunters are able to donate whole deer, which will be processed and distributed to food banks, who in turn, will deliver the venison to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other hunger relief centers.  Finally, donations of non-food items, like diapers, personal care items and cleaning supplies are often greatly appreciated at many food pantries.

The items I have mentioned in this post are items that will be of need at most food pantries.  I urge you, however, to contact the food pantry to which you want to make a donation, particularly if the pantry is a small one.  The staff may be able to guide you to items which are most in need or clarify their policy on what they will accept and what they might be unable to handle.  Another reason to contact your local food pantry prior to giving is that maybe they have a need about which you were unaware, like an ongoing capital campaign to expand their space or purchase a large appliance like a freezer.  In such a situation the best donation you could make would be a cash donation.  Based on my nearly 3 years of volunteering in a food pantry, there is always a need, and we are always grateful when we receive donations.  Without them we would not be nearly as successful as we are at helping all those we do!

thank you veggies

A Giving Advent Calendar

After taking most of this year off from writing so that I could run for school board, I’m back!  The election was last Tuesday, and I am happy to say I was successful in my run and have been elected to the school board for a 4 year term.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed campaigning for school board, and I now know many more people from my community than I did when I started my campaign.  I was, however, equally surprised at how much I missed writing this blog.  I am so glad to be back and eager to dive into reading all the articles I have saved over the past few months!

My shift in focus back to food insecurity coincides with the run up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.reindeer advent  Being involved in a food pantry during the holiday season results in a seesawing of emotions for me.  I have more than once found myself leaving a volunteer shift in low spirits over the holiday season.  Hearing the stories of individuals and families who find themselves in such heartbreaking and often desperate situations is extra difficult when the balance of your life is filled with thoughts of and plans for the gastronomic bounty that is Thanksgiving and the excitement of giving and receiving that comes with Christmas.  The juxtaposition of these two very different life situations can leave me filled with a combination of anger, sadness and helplessness.

Luckily, working in the food pantry during the holiday season also brings examples of generosity, gratitude and joy.  Donations to food banks and pantries tend to increase during the holiday season, as individuals reflect on the abundance in their lives.  Churches, schools, social groups and businesses often sponsor food drives or adopt-a-family programs for the holidays.  Currently, I know my sons’ high school student council is sponsoring a food drive to benefit our food pantry.  In addition to the generosity exhibited by the general population through their increased donations, my spirits are often uplifted by the expression of gratitude a grocery cart full of food can bring to the face of a mother who spends much of her waking hours wondering and worrying not about how santa adventshe will provide Christmas presents for her children, but how she will feed them dinner on Christmas Day.  And I can not begin to explain to you the look of excitement and joy I saw on the faces of several young children as they picked out the sweet treat we gave out last December.

As a result of experiencing this back and forth of emotions while volunteering at the food pantry during the holidays, I knew instantly when I saw the idea of a giving (or reverse) Advent calendar on Facebook that I wanted to write about it in my blog and encourage others to participate in this year’s holiday project by creating a giving Advent calendar.  Most people are familiar with an Advent calendar, where you do something each day, starting with December 1st, until Christmas Eve to count down the days to Christmas.  In our house our two Advent calendars involve hanging an ornament on a Christmas tree each day.  The idea behind a giving Advent calendar is that you add something every day from December 1st through Christmas Eve to a box to be donated.  So for the food pantry, one would put a food item, personal care item or cleaning product each day in a box ending on December 24th with 24 items to then be donated to a food pantry.

This year, in addition to counting down the days to Christmas with our Advent calendars, my family will be counting up to 24 items in a box.  I encourage you to do the same with your family.  What you put in the box is up to you.  You can diversify, putting in 24 different items or simplify by putting in 24 of the same item.  You could pick a theme, like items a family might need in a day or ask your children to pick some of their favorite non perishable foods or focus on items for the homeless.  The options are many.  Below I have included a list of some of the more useful items that can be included in your giving Advent calendar, and if you are local to me, I would be happy to pick up your giving Advent calendar after Christmas.

Non Perishable Food:  canned vegetables, canned fruit, soups, peanut butter, jelly, spaghetti noodles, spaghetti sauce, rice, dried beans, tuna, canned chicken, cereal, instant oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sweet treats

Personal Care Items:  bars of soap, toothpaste, dental floss, toothbrushes, shampoo, deodorant, toilet paper, tissues

Cleaning Products:  laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels

Baby products:  baby cereal, formula, baby food, diapers (especially larger sizes), baby wipes, baby shampoo, baby wash

Homeless Products:  single serving cans, items with pop tops, Spam, Vienna sausages, chili, packages of single serve cereal, granola bars, single serve juices, dehydrated soups, plastic utensils, can openers

 

 

Think Locally When Acting Nationally

fireworksThis past Saturday the Chester Country chapter of the A.B.A.T.E. motorcycle group delivered the results of their annual food drive to the food pantry.  The group estimates this year’s drive netted approximately 10 tons of food and personal care products.  I was unable to be there when the food arrived, but I hope to be able to attend this event next year.  The caravan of motorcycles and pickup trucks pulling trailers loaded with food was met at the edge of town and given a police escort through the town center to the building that houses the food pantry.  To me one of the joys of living in a small town is the hoopla that occurs for an event like this.  I’m certain when I witness it firsthand I will tear up.

After writing a blog post about this event last year I happened to encounter some members of the local A.B.A.T.E. motorcycle club at our town’s First Friday event.  I had been so moved by their effort, and as a volunteer in the food pantry, had seen what a difference their food drive made, so I decided to approach these leather clad bikers to thank them and let them know they were making a difference.  What I got in return was a very touching conversation.  The biker I talked to had at one time needed the assistance of our food pantry.  As a result of the help and kindness he had received at a difficult time in his life, he made a promise to himself that he would participate in this food drive as a way to repay this kindness and help others who were going through a similar rough patch in fireworks red white bluelife.

As I recall that conversation I can not help thinking about another conversation I had earlier this summer.   My husband and I were attending a reunion ceremony for his undergraduate program.  It was a cocktail reception and he and I were milling about, not knowing anyone.  We approached a couple standing at a table and struck up a conversation.  As we discussed who attended the college and our time at the college, the conversation naturally progressed to what we were currently doing.  When I mentioned that I blogged about and advocated for those who were food insecure, the wife asked if I focused my efforts on global food insecurity or national food insecurity.  Her question instantly made me wary and I cautiously answered nationally, especially locally to where I live.  I was relieved when she responded affirmatively, stating that so often there is an emphasis placed on the suffering going on in third world countries, while willingly ignoring the suffering that is happening within our borders to our fellow citizens.

I found truth in her statement but with qualifiers. Locally, I have witnessed numerous people, from this motorcycle group to local churches to concerned neighbors eager to donate food and other items to help those who come to our food pantry.  I am always touched and humbled by the generosity of others when the local schools’ food drive is delivered or one of my neighbors calls to ask what the pantry needs or how they can help.  These local actions are necessary to help bridge the gap between what these individuals who are food insecure have and what they need to get by, but even at our best we can do very little to lift those in need out of their desperate situation.  We are just a band-aid.

sparklerTo truly change the plight of the food insecure requires a much larger nationwide effort, starting with a strong social safety net and jobs which pay a livable wage, and yet, as a nation Americans currently seem very reluctant to embrace these policies.  This divide between the individual acts of generosity I have witnessed repeatedly and the willingness of the greater American society to support policies that will cut aid to the very same people that local generosity has helped is befuddling to me.  I have read articles and books to try to understand it.  I have engaged in conversation with and listened to those who support cuts to the social safety net to try to understand it.  And still I do not.  So as I celebrate this Fourth of July with family and full table of food, I will be thankful for the individual generosity of others and hopeful that their generosity continues to be enough to bridge the gap for those in need until our society can come together nationally to work toward nationwide solutions to food insecurity which will lift people up rather than just bridge a gap.

4th of July

Devastating and Instantaneous

Did I get your attention with the title of this post, because those words definitely grabbed my attention a few days ago.  I follow the news and have been aware of all the discussion surrounding the proposed budget recently released by President Trump.  I am disheartened to read about the cuts he wants to make in funding for education, the arts and humanities.  I worry for the future of the planet I will leave to my children when I see the proposed cuts to the EPA, Department of Energy, and NASA.  While these cuts, if enacted, will result in changes in my world, those changes will not be calamitous for me or my family (although I worry we are getting close on the climate).  Another group of proposed cuts, however, worries me greatly, because I understand that unlike me and my family, those affected by this group of cuts will be impacted quite adversely and sooner rather than later.  The cuts to which I am referring are proposed for the budgets of the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services and will affect programs designed to assist those who are food insecure, like Meals on Wheels, Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Assistance (WIC), and government provided food to emergency food providers.

I did not realize how quickly or severely these already vulnerable segments of our population were going to be affected until I read a recent post of Facebook.  The local Philadelphia CBS station interviewed two key staff members at the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB) about the effect President Trump’s proposed budget would have on the CCFB and its network of affiliated food pantries and cupboards as well as the Meals on Wheels program operated out of CCFB.  While I knew these proposed cuts would definitely impact the food pantry in which I volunteer, I was not quite prepared for what I read in this interview.  Phoebe Kitson, Director for Agency and Community Partnerships describes the impact these proposed budget cuts will have on CCFB as “devastating and instantaneous”.  Jeani Purcell, with Chester County Meals on Wheels says the budget cutelderly eating would result in a huge loss for Chester County’s Meals on Wheels program, as 35% of their budget comes from government contracts.

I understood when I first heard about this proposed budget that it would hurt people, not nameless, faceless people, but people I interact with every week at the food pantry.  I just didn’t quite realize that the impact would be “devastating and instantaneous”.  I can tell you our clients understand it will hit them and hit them hard.  Prior to the release of this proposed budget, several clients, all of them seniors, expressed their concern about possibly loosing their healthcare and just how difficult getting by would be for them if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed.  Now imagine if on top of loosing your healthcare, the food pantry you already turn to for assistance can no longer provide the amount of aid it has been able to provide in the past.  At a time when some need help more than ever, they will have to get by with even less.

These proposed budget cuts are drastic and take aim at some of America’s already most vulnerable citizens.  Meals on Wheels and food banks provide food aid to populations who desperately need it–seniors, the disabled, veterans, children.  They will hurt real people, people in our neighborhood, people I know.  But right now these proposed cuts are just that, proposed.  I urge you to monitor the status of this proposed budget as well as any other legislation that takes aim at our already threadbare social safety net.  Then please contact your legislators and make your voice heard.

Homeless Helpers!

Over the past few weeks we have helped more homeless individuals than usual and our supplies for the homeless have dwindled.  Much of what we are able to provide for our homeless clients comes from donations.  I have had several local readers regularly ask me what they can purchase that is needed most.  I often do not have a specific list of items, but today I do.  Here is a list of the items we could use to restock our shelves for the homeless.

  • small cans of fruit or applesauce
  • canned meat–Spam, Vienna Sausages, Potted meat, tuna (individual servings)
  • Cup of soup–dried soup mix in a cup to which you just add hot water
  • breakfast items–single servings of cereal, granola or breakfast bars
  • plastic utensils
  • paper plates and bowls
  • inexpensive can openers

We have a satisfactory supply of canned vegetables and canned soups, stews and other similar items.  Cans with a pull top lid are always the best in case our homeless client does not have a can opener and we do not have any on hand to give out.  As always, I am happy to collect items donated and take them into the food pantry when I volunteer.  Thank you so much for supporting and caring for our community’s homeless.

 

The New Trend on College Campuses

purdueMy oldest son, a sophomore in high school, recently took the PSAT.  Consequently, we now have a flood of college materials pouring into our house.  Some days he gets more mail than everyone else in the house combined.  Some of the colleges just send  postcards directing him to the website, while others send packets with color pictures and testimonials highlighting the good qualities of their school.  What none of these materials highlight, however, is the campus food pantry and/or other services the university provides to students struggling with food insecurity, and yet a growing number of colleges and universities house a food pantry on their campuses in an effort to assist these students, whose numbers ballooned after the recession and show no signs of deflating.  I was alerted to this issue by a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition and after some more research I was surprised to learn that there are 447 member institutions registered with College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), a national organization co-founded by the campus food pantries at Michiganmsu State University and Oregon State University to support campus food banks currently in operation as well as those just opening.*  I was equally surprised to learn that all 3 of the universities my husband and I attended now had food pantries on their campuses.

In order to better understand college campus food insecurity issues, CUFBA joined forces with three other campus based organizations to survey students, who attended eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities, located in 12 states.  Between the months of March and May 2016 these groups talked with 3,765 students from these institutions and produced a report titled, Hunger on Campus:  The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students,  which was released in October 2016.  The study found that food insecurity can be found at both two and four year institutions, with two year institutions experiencing higher levels, 25% and 20%, respectively.  Food insecurity was higher among students of color and first generation college students.  The study also found that students who experience food insecurity are likely to be struggling with housing insecurity, like trouble paying the rent, mortgage or other utility bills.  As a result of these struggles, the study found that the educational efforts of these students have been hampered or harmed because the students have not been unable to afford to buy textbooks or their situation has caused them to either miss classes or even drop a course.

A reasonable response to this study’s findings would be to suggest that these students get a job or avail themselves of the resources, like SNAP, already offered to those suffering from food insecurity.  The study found that over half (56%) already did have a job and 38% of those employed worked over 20 hours per week.  Working at least 20 hours per week is a requirement for any student who receives SNAP benefits, of which 25% of food insecure students reported receiving.  Additionally, three fourths of food insecure students receive financial aid.  Fifty two percent receive Pell Grants and 37% took out student loans.  Finally, being on a meal plan does not guarantee that students will not experience food insecurity.  According to the survey, among the food insecure respondents from 4 year institutions, 43% reported being enrolled in some type of meal plan.  The fact that so many of these food insecure students are already taking action to help make attending college possible suggests that more needs to be done to understand their struggles and assist them during their time in college.

sjsuThe report offers some recommendations to colleges and universities to address the issue of food insecurity on their campuses.  To date most of the initiatives in place on college campuses, like campus food pantries or dining center meal donation programs, like Swipes at Columbia University, have all been student initiatives.  The recommendation section of this report suggests that university administrations support and further develop campus based initiatives which address food insecurity, including but not limited to, food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery programs, dining center meal donation programs and coordinated benefit access programs.  In addition to working creatively on their campuses to address student food insecurity, college and university administrators should implement programs that promote college affordability, for instance creating resources which help make textbooks more affordable, like a book scholarship.  Implementing an emergency grant fund, like the one offered at CUNY, will aid students who are food insecure and are likely struggling to continue to afford college deal with any unexpected expense which could cause them to have to leave school.

The effort to assist college students who are struggling with food insecurity should not end with the immediate steps taken by college and university administrators.  The report details a list of recommendations federal policymakers should take to improve the situation of students experiencing food insecurity.   The first action suggested is to include food security questions on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), administered annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, which will provide policymakers with the data to better understand the depth of the situation and assess potential solutions.  Simplifying the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students and removing the 20 hour per week work requirement for students enrolled at least half time are also suggestions made by the report.  Finally, included in the suggestions is a call to improve the federal aid process for homeless students, including the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

When I went to college, I was able to pay half of my college tuition at a reasonably priced uwmadisonstate university using money I had saved from working while in high school, supplemented with money earned by working a few hours a week while at college and full time in the summer.  Gone are the days when many college students are able to work to put themselves through college, at least not at a normal college pace of 4-5 years to complete a Bachelor’s Degree.  College tuition has skyrocketed, even at the once reasonably priced state institutions, and financial aid for low income students, like Pell Grants, is less readily available, making it more difficult, if not almost impossible for some to be able to afford college.   At the same time, colleges are seeing a rise in nontraditional students–lower income students, first generation college students and adults, some with families, fully responsible for their own living expenses–enrolling in higher education.  These new college enrollees present college and university administrations with a set of challenges few are likely to have previously faced, but these challenges are not insurmountable.  The ability of these college students experiencing food insecurity to succeed at college is as important as any other college student’s ability to succeed at college.  Ensuring their success is important to the vitality of our nation’s work force and the strength of our economy.

* To illustrate the seriousness of this situation on college campuses, I initially did my research in January and on 1/17/17 CUFBA listed 434 member campus food pantries.  When I rechecked that number today (2/15/17) the total number of campus food pantry members had risen by 13 to 447 in less than a month.

West Chester University Food Pantry which partners with Chester County Food Bank

 

 

 

Luxury Items

As I started to collect coffee, tea and hot chocolate mix for our food pantry’s Warm Their Hearts drive, my husband expressed concern about something I too had been wrestling with.  He pointed out that the items I had held food drives for were luxury items and that maybe those folks who had helped out might rather donate items that are more of a staple item, like canned vegetables or peanut butter.   I certainly saw his point and understood teahis concern.  The debate of what is an appropriate food item for someone who is requiring assistance with food, either through SNAP or from a food pantry, has been debated in American society many times.  After some more thought on my part and discussion with some people who had participated in both drives I am comfortable with the two items that have been chosen for our food drives, and I now understand that providing these items to our food pantry clients has been beneficial to both the recipients and the donors.

Most people have experienced hunger, if only for a little while, when our busy schedules force us to delay or even skip a meal, but very few of us have had to experience the psychological toll privation has on those who are food insecure.  Contemplating the absence in my life of the food items I chose for these recent food drives illustrates for me what that psychological toll would begin feel like if I suffered from food insecurity.  I know if I could not bake Christmas cookies I would experience a profound sadness, because I could not bake cookies with my sister for my family and friends.  Additionally, life without coffee is almost unimaginable to me.  I start my day with coffee and use it as a reward, a pick me up, a reason to take a break.  Plain and simple, coffee makes me happy.  Neither the holiday cookies nor the daily coffee are necessary for my daily sustenance, but without hot-chocolate-2them my mental outlook on life would be very different.  Consequently, receiving an unexpected treat, like a cookie mix or coffee, tea or hot chocolate might lift the spirits of those who struggle with food insecurity and must go without these unaffordable extras on a regular basis.

The recipients, however, are not the only ones who psychologically benefit from these food drives.  The donors do too.  The benefit to donors was not immediately evident to me.  I know that I experience a sense of pleasure at knowing I am brightening someone else’s day by helping them get food at the food pantry and by helping provide these treats, but I wasn’t sure that same sentiment was felt by everyone who was participating in the food drives.  A recent thank you letter from a reader and donor, as well as conversations with a couple of other donors has made me realize those who choose to participate in these food drives receive a positive psychological boost as well.  The feedback I received indicated they loved these ideas and were very happy to participate in donating items.  From these interactions I was also able to determine that these specific food drives had allowed the donors to also contemplate the psychological toll food insecurity might have on a person.  Perhaps most encouraging to me, however, is that each of these individuals has mentioned wanting to participate in future drives and/or has suggested other ways in which they could donate.

I would like to say that each action I take is part of some larger plan, but more often than not I am just making it up as I go along.  When some aha moment happens and gives me a black-coffeemoment of clarity or understanding, I try to translate that understanding or clarity to my readers who are following me on my journey.  Like the SNAP Challenge, these food drives have been a device to help illustrate more clearly what being food insecure is truly like.  I can go without all kinds of food for a day, or week to try and replicate food insecurity, but I probably never would have thought to stop drinking coffee.  It would never have occurred to me, until I heard someone who is really food insecure ask if we might possibly have some to give out.  I don’t know what the next food drive will be, but I do want my readers to know, that I will always take substitutions if you disagree with the item being collected.  As a matter of fact, I will take almost any unexpired food or personal care item you want to donate, any time you want to donate it.  It will always go to good use.

Give It to Someone Who Needs It

“I don’t need this. Give it to someone who does.”

I heard this, or something very close to it, said three times this week while I was volunteering at the food pantry.  The three people who said this were not folks who had come in to donate food.  They were three clients who were receiving food.  Each one of these clients declined to take at least one item we were offering in their monthly allotment of food, not because s/he didn’t like it, but because it was not needed this month.  One lady, when she realized she had a couple of items she did not need, even brought those items back in to us after taking her food to her car .  (She also brought in a bag of children’s books to share with others because her children were done with them.)   The items they declined were dry good items–a jar of jelly, cans of vegetables, syrup–thatpancakes-and-syrup would have lasted on a shelf for several months to a year or two, and yet these people, who have so little, refused to take what they did not immediately need so that someone else who needed it more could have it.

I’m not writing about these three clients because their actions are unusual.  On the contrary, we hear this sentiment all the time.  I am often touched by the generosity of people who have little to share making sure others, who have less, are able to have something as well.  And their generosity does not end with just food.  I recently learned of two client households who opened their homes to one or more persons who were going to find themselves homeless otherwise.  Can you imagine if your resources were already stretched to the breaking point, telling more people to “Come on in. We’ll figure it out somehow.”? I am so touched by their acts of selflessness and glad that we are here to help them as they help others.

Coming to a food pantry is often a last resort for people.  They need help, but are usually embarrassed by their need.  Once they receive that assistance, they are so appreciative.  The situation is no different with our clients.  In addition to being thoughtful, the majority of our clients are extremely grateful for our assistance, often to the point of tears.  They appreciate the dry good staples we regularly provide, but are especially enthusiastic thank-you-peppersabout the fresh produce and the little extras we sometimes have, like dog food, special dietary items like low sodium soups and the baking mixes in December.  It has been so rewarding to hear how much of a lift those mixes were.  One client, in relating how grateful she was to receive the baking mix told us she used the item she baked as a gift from someone.  Once again, these stories and thank yous are not unusual, but the norm.

So often the portrayal of people who are at or below the poverty line, and are therefore food insecure, is less than favorable.  I have heard people refer to those needing assistance as lazy and that they are cheating the system.  One politician called them takers. To be fair, he has apologized for using that term and has since stopped using it, but the sentiment he expressed is alive and well in our country.  The reality of who a typical food pantry client is, however, resembles someone far different.  The typical food pantry client is the young man who left college in his third year to return home to care for his ailing mother because he was all she had.  It is the grandmother who is now caring for her grandchildren and maybe even an adult child, because drug addiction has devastated their family.  It is the person struggling to beat cancer or the senior citizen who can’t quite get by on just Social Security.  It is even the family trying to make ends meet on one, two or even three minimum wage jobs.  Time and again I am humbled by their words of gratitude and simple acts of generosity for others.  They understand more than most what it is like to need help and more importantly, how important it is that others are there to provide that help.