It’s not a big surprise to anyone who follows my posts on Facebook that I use food banks fairly regularly. There are two in the city I live in that I make use of, one at a Catholic church that requires you live in the parish, another run by the city, and both limit your visits to once every 60 days. I try to alternate them month by month, but there’s been times when I couldn’t and though that screws with my scheduling, we do what we have to and manage as best we can. Though I should’ve gone on Friday, I couldn’t drag myself out of the house that day so I went out this morning, Monday.
Both have their pros and cons, but the Society of St. Vincent De Paul manages the one closest to me, a quick run up the street and back. When I find it particularly hard to get out the door, it’s always my first choice. Though they do provide a pre-set box of groceries that may have items I just won’t use (tomato sauce, for example. I’ve tried to like it, I really have), they also usually have a large rack of baked goods you can take from at your leisure, and they provide a $25 voucher usable at any local grocery store for items they simply cannot stock. The other, managed by Community Cares (not sure if that’s just in Ontario or across Canada), has a fridge and freezers, will sometimes have eggs, milk, and other perishables, and gives you a set number of points you can use to choose what you need from their stock. Both open at 9am. When I need to go out, I always try to be there on that dot to avoid large groups and lineups. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The Society of St. Vincent De Paul is fairly strict with their requirement that you currently live in the parish of the church that hosts the food banks they manage. I understand that, it makes perfect sense to me, and I am not going to criticise them for that at all. In order to prove that you do, you need to provide not only a piece of photo identification but a piece of mail, usually a bill or benefit statement, that is no more than 30 days old with your name and address. I have never forgotten to bring something like that with me, until this morning. I was feeling anxious about going out, so focused pretty strictly on showering, getting dressed, and just walking out the door. One foot in front of the other, right?
It wasn’t until I pulled into the parking lot that I realised I didn’t have the piece of mail.
So a mad look around the mess of my car, in the door pocket where I often stuff things and forget about them, in the back seat where I toss other things, equally forgotten minutes later. No joy. I knew that if I went home I would never come back out again, at least that day, and my pantry was really empty. I did have a bit of money left on my overdraft, but I’m trying to claw my way out of that. I probably won’t be successful, but I want to. I decided to rely on the good graces of the volunteers inside and be forthright and honest, so in I went.
There was already a crowd. I try very diligently to recognise everyone has their histories and their unmet needs, that each of these people struggle as I do and often find themselves lacking at the end of the month between whatever benefits they might receive. There was one man there, his first visit I overheard, who looked horribly awkward and I understood that feeling very well. I wanted to reach out to him, but I couldn’t, and to be honest it probably would have only drawn attention to his sense of humiliation anyway, so I let him do what he needed and I waited quietly in the line.
The lovely older woman who was taking everyone at their turn came seemed a bit harried but, in her face, I could see her struggling with me when I told her I’d forgotten the mail. She did frown, but certainly not in an angry or officious way. Her expressions changed from sorrow to thoughtfulness and understanding, and ultimately regret when she had to tell me she could not give me my groceries. She explained why, and I told her I understood. Then I started to cry a little bit.
Oh, I could feel the swelling around the eyes, the flush on the cheeks, the sob stuck in my throat that I had to let settle for a moment before I said, meekly, “I’ll just get some bread then, if that’s okay.” I said a few other words I think to ease her guilt (always the paramedic when there’s a patient), picked up a package of bagels, then left quickly past the line without looking at anyone because I didn’t want to see – what, pity? – in their eyes, though they probably didn’t even notice.
I was able to go directly to the other one across the city rather than go home, again because I knew if I did I would not come out again, and I have a fairly stocked kitchen now. They had a special on big cans of beans and pasta, one point (out of 20) for six of each. I like beans, and pasta is a staple in my cupboard. I also have a big salami. You can interpret that as you wish.
It’s been almost two years since I’ve begun to use these services, and I think they’re wonderful. They’re necessary, and everyone who volunteers there is always friendly and welcoming, engaging in conversation as if you were together at the laundromat. I wish I could figure out a way to keep a trip there from being a lesson in humility, but I can’t. It is what it is. Today, especially so.
Don’t pass the raggedy looking person on the sidewalk asking for spare change without checking your pockets, and don’t wait for a food drive to pick up something extra to donate. Most of all, don’t judge anyone.
I used to do that. I don’t anymore.