“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–that 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 about 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.