I'm not sure it's important to know how exactly this happened. There are so many different circumstances which lead to the food bank. None of them is any more or less "worthy" than any other.
What happened to me, is that my ex-husband was laid off; subsequently, the amount he was able to pay in child support and maintenance was diminished.
This is a new experience, not just for me, but for my entire family. My grandparents were employed throughout the Great Depression. Hell, I had a (tiny) trust fund (note past tense) and a couple of summers at Interlochen! I figure that makes me something of a pioneer in the area of Serious Financial Trouble. There must be many more people like me hereabouts, formerly middle class people feeling the ground give way beneath them. So follow me past the squiggle, and I'll tell you what it's like (what to expect?) at the food bank.
From a previous employment at a local elementary school, I knew about EFAA, Emergency Family Assistance Association. To quote from their "what they do" section, they help with food, shelter, rent, utilities, minor medical expenses, transportation, furniture, and referrals to other agencies. I called them and scheduled an appointment with a counselor.
The counselor I worked with seemed hostile. She didn't smile once. It made me feel even more ashamed than I had been up to that point, about being in such a situation. As she approved me for weekly visits to the food bank, I couldn't prevent apprehension about weekly humiliations in my future.
Perhaps that counselor was having a bad day - I've had nothing but concerned sympathy from the EFAA staff and volunteers. The building is clean and, though on the cramped side, welcoming. There's a little play room for kids, and the magazines (unlike in a medical waiting room) are all current! Plenty of parking, too.
Once I week, I sign in at the receptionist desk. After a wait of varying length, one of the volunteers takes me into an office, where I confirm my circumstances are unchanged.
(There unfortunately is no way to predict how long or short of a wait you'll have, as likewise for what groceries will be available.)
After another wait of varying length, I'm handed off to another volunteer to be guided through the "grocery" area. They have little carts, and (usually) sufficient plastic grocery bags.
First stop, canned meat. As I am feeding two growing adolescents, along with myself, I am allowed two cans of pasta-type dinners (like ravioli), two cans of chili, and one can of tuna.
Next, soup. I get two cans again, "vegetable chunky" when they have it, cream of tomato and/or chicken noodle when they don't.
Third, beans, in dry or canned varieties. I was given a lot of dried beans a couple of weeks ago, so I've been skipping these. Next, canned vegetables (I get sweet potatoes when I can) and fruit (my kids like pears). Then one can of corn. Then buns for hot dogs or hamburgers, and bread - donated from a local organic bakery whose products I can't, when in funds, afford.
Then, sometimes, meat. They don't always have any. Two weeks ago I hit the jackpot with a pound of ground buffalo, and there was a pre-seasoned pork roast a few weeks before that. Otherwise, it's Oscar Meyer Fully Cooked Bacon, or hot dogs, all those processed "foods" which in different circumstances I would refuse. I can pick one thing.
To continue: two boxes of mac & cheese (which my kids like), two packages of pasta, and two bags of white rice. A gallon of organic milk (again, donated from a local company I can't afford). Juice, if there is any. Two cans of tomato-based product, like sauce or diced tomatoes. A box of cereal - I got Cheerios once! Usually it's store-brand corn flakes.
Twice I've brought home fruit: strawberries, which the kids devoured in an evening; and raspberries, which unfortunately were moldy the next morning. (An aside: I reported back to work at my current school on Friday. One of my coworkers had brought a fruit salad, strawberries and blackberries and blueberries. I just stared at it, enraptured, savoring the aroma. And yes, she shared, bless her.)
There's usually produce - this is where what is available widely varies. Sometimes I come home with one onion, sometimes two, sometimes carrots, sometimes red bell peppers. Corn on the cob, too, lately.
Lastly, there are toiletries: toilet paper, little packets of shampoo or soap, diapers. My cart is then weighed. For my family of three, I can take out up to 70-80 pounds. After availing myself of all there is to offer, I'm usually in the 40s somewhere.
And then I load up my boss' car (I'm car-less at the moment, so she insists I use hers, when she doesn't drive me up herself), and then I go home and unload the week's treasures with my children.
I do have to supplement via my local grocery store. My kids are ravenous. At one point, my 12-year-old girl was inhaling more than her 19-year-old brother. She grew an inch this summer! (One more inch to go, and she'll pass me.)
I have other financial struggles, too, like making rent, and paying utility bills in a timely fashion. The point of my going to the food bank is to free up cash to be able to make those payments. My little sister back in Michigan has been helpful, buying all my girl's school supplies for her, as an example.
If I had advice for anyone in this situation - if you have kids, you really have to put your pride and/or shame aside for them, and just DO this. As I wrote above, I'm the first one in my family who has "sunk so low" - it certainly isn't something I'm trumpeting about to my various relatives. I've told my sister, of course. And my mom knows. I reflected that if my kids were in trouble, I would want to know about it, and therefore pushed Mom's speed dial.
And yeah, the quality of the food isn't politically correct. Big fucking deal. I'm not going to let my kids starve on somebody else's principles. And I personally will never turn up my nose again at anyone else's grocery choices. Being in this predicament has, if nothing else, gotten me off my high horse. For good, I hope.
Lastly - it helps to be open about this, to let people know what is going on with you. It's too easy to brood about poverty, to chase yourself - not in circles - but in a deepening spiral. There are ways you can inform people, without seeming to beg, or that you harbor any expectations at all - and you can come right out and say that, too. All I know is, it really was a relief to my heart, Friday, when I let my co-workers in on my wretched summer.
I am profoundly grateful to EFAA, to my sainted boss, to my sister. I feel more connected to the world now. The way I'm planning to give back, is to tithe a portion of my future knitting and crocheting projects to local charities.
Thank you for reading! If you can, please donate to or volunteer at your local food bank.
10:18 PM PT: UPDATE: this diary has actually made the Rec List. I am so humbled and honored! Now I really am going to cry. Thank you all so very much.
Sun Aug 14, 2011 at 6:41 AM PT: I just woke up and discovered myself atop the Rec List. This is so overwhelming, to be this position. Thanks to everyone, again.
Sun Aug 14, 2011 at 7:56 AM PT: Update #3 - I am starting to get offers from you loving, generous, compassionate folks. Offers of food, toiletries, etc. One of the things I wanted to accomplish with this diary, was to get better-off Kossacks to donate to their local food banks. I will feel WAY better about this! (And to the folks in my shoes - there are a lot of people willing and able to assist us.) Bless you all!