I recently started to volunteer at St. Felix Pantry. Although I have donated money and food for many years, and I have wanted to volunteer at a food bank for a long time, they have always been too far from home. St. Felix is very convenient, so it was time to stop wishing and get involved.
Having food to support one's family is something I've never thought much about, but it is such a critical thing. Food is necessary to sustain life, of course, but it also plays such an important role in our social customs and interactions with others. We go out to eat with friends; we have potlucks; when someone is very ill, we take food to the house. When I went to an outdoor concert recently with three other women, we were asked to bring 'something to share.' Sharing food with others, whether it's a full dinner or some cheese and crackers, just makes the gathering more special.
I cannot imagine not having enough food. My pantry and freezer are typically full, and it annoys me when my teenage daughter says "There's nothing to eat here." She doesn't realize how lucky she is, particularly given her background in Russia, where she frequently went hungry. Imagine what it must feel like to have to wonder whether your box of food will last the week, or to not have the freedom to shop and buy what you want because you can't afford it.
St. Felix Pantry requires no proof of income. A simple application listing name, address and phone number is all that is necessary. Clients can visit the pantry and the clothing area once a week. When the doors open at 9 a.m., there is always a line of people waiting to get inside for food.
I work a 3-hour shift on Wednesday mornings, either in the food distribution area or in the clothing area. First, I helped with produce, refilling boxes of fruits and vegetables, assisting clients and making sure people took only the amount of bread allowed for that day. The limit was one loaf of bread and one package of English muffins, rolls or buns. It all depends on how much food is donated. During my shift, there was an abundance of bananas, but only a few packages of strawberries.
About half-way through my shift, I was moved to the clothing area, where I sat at the front desk, checking to make sure each shopper had a card that allowed a once-a-week visit. People were allowed to take six items of adult clothing and six items of children's clothing, in addition to household goods such as sheets, lamps, cookware, etc. Children also were allowed to take one toy.
Before volunteering at the panty, I wasn't sure what to expect. I don't routinely interact with the poor, and I expected most of the clients to be either elderly or Hispanic. But I can't really categorize the clients that day. They were of all ages and ethnicities: young adults with and without children, middle aged and elderly; male and female; black, white, Native American and Hispanic. Let's put this stereotype to rest: I don't think there is a 'typical' person in need of food assistance. Times are tough, food is expensive, and unemployment is high. Hunger knows no bounds; the common thread is that people are going hungry, and St. Felix Pantry is there to help.
I noticed a couple of things: Most people were very grateful for the food and clothing. Some thanked me, and one man said "God bless you" a couple of times. The food is donated by local bakeries, dairies and grocery stores. Much of the produce is not of top quality cosmetically, but it is edible and free. The clothing and household items are donated by individuals.
After getting a pillow and blanket from the clothing and household goods area, one man said he was going camping because the forest areas have been reopened since the fire danger has decreased. Another man decided not to take any bread that week because his freezer was already full of bread. I was glad that he decided against being greedy and taking something he didn't need. A thin man with very unkempt hair and beard came to the clothing area in search of a backpack to make it easier to carry his possessions. He didn't find a backpack, but he was thrilled with the canvas zipper bag he did find. He sat in the reception area putting his donated food into the bag and talking about how much easier it would be to do all the walking he had to do with his items in a sturdy bag instead of in smaller plastic bags.
The other thing that struck me was the way people treated each other. There was no pushing or shoving by clients, and volunteers treated clients with respect. Among the core values of the pantry are respect for human dignity and compassion.The clients may be poor, but volunteers treat them with great respect. I found myself going out of my way to help people and provide information. One woman started talking to me about how to grill fava beans, while an elderly Hispanic woman asked me to bag up some onions for her. One person apologized profusely when I informed her that she could take only one loaf of bread (she had three in her hands), although a couple of men ignored my reminder and took two loaves. I wasn't going to confront them, so they got away with taking extra bread that day.
Ordinarily, I shy away from interacting with people I don't know, but something about volunteering at a food pantry prompted me to be more welcoming and helpful. People thanked me for volunteering, but I think I am the one to be thankful. I am thankful that I can afford to provide food for my daughter and myself, and I am thankful for the opportunity to be of service to others not so fortunate. Finally, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn about others with whom I seldom interact, and to remember that we all are human.
Reminders of one's blessings are always good for the soul. And I am grateful for the reminder -- and the food -- provided by the good folks at St. Felix Pantry.