There are a lot of new faces around the food bank right now. Many folks have been laid off from work, and there aren’t nearly enough jobs that offer a living wage for families to make it through the month.
We’re a small food bank. As in we have a few shelves and a couple of deep freezes. For the size of community that we are, it’s usually a manageable size. But on more days than not now, our size feels very much like little boy David facing down big huge ugly Goliath.
Our policy is that people needing the food bank are eligible every 30 days. In part it’s because we believe there are more and better ways to alleviate poverty that have to become parts of our lives than food banks by themselves. The other part is our capacity: we are too small to feed everyone’s families a month’s worth of food all of the time. It’s just not possible.
When people come to us, we can provide food that will hopefully last between 2 and 4 days.
That isn’t much at all.
And if anyone has experienced food insecurity to any degree, I can see your faces falling even as you read these words. It’s not that people are ungrateful for the bit of assistance we can offer (although there is a person or two who could do with some lessons in manners). It’s more that the little bit we offer is like a big, giant tease.
A single mom with 6 kids. What’s she supposed to do with a couple bags of groceries? How’s that going to stretch?
A gentleman who was only here a week ago came in again today over his lunch hour. He had forgotten about the 30-day policy, and simply showed up because he was hungry.
What to do?
Yes, all of our hearts are screaming “Give him the food!”
But if I did that for all the hungry people walking in the door each week, our food supplies would dwindle in days. And then where would we be?
Last week, a mother of 7 yelled at me because I refused to give her a gift card. You see, we’re trying to provide grocery gift cards for parents with babies 0-6 months. We could stock formula or diapers; but we’ve found that we often don’t have the right kind of formula families have been using for the babies, or that we don’t have the right size of diapers in the moment. Families know their babies best, so it made sense to give the gift cards so they could shop for what they need.
However, like our shelves, our store of gift cards is limited. Hence the cut-off after a baby turns 7 months.
Does this mean our wee babes no longer need help? No! Of course they do!
Does this mean we don’t want to help our families? Definitely not!
It means we don’t have enough to meet everyone’s needs fully all of the time.
This particular mom named other people who accessed the food bank whom she believed didn’t need it; she begged me to make an exception for her (not realizing that 3 sets of parents before her had pleaded in the same way); she accused me of not caring; she tried telling me that I gave gift cards to certain people, thus I should be making exceptions for her.
She loaded both barrels and fired in rapid succession.
Was it nasty?
Did she really feel entitled to a gift card?
Maybe. But if you could have seen her face, you would have seen as I did that she was scared. Her youngest had just turned 7 months old. Couldn’t I just this once help her out?
My heart broke for her. It really did. But I held my ground.
Word gets around fast in a small town; and word gets around faster in a pool of people who rely on the food bank on a monthly basis. She was convinced that if the two of us kept the secret, no one else would have to know. She didn’t realize that so many families before her had begged in the same way. We helped those we could in the parameters we had set up; but there were people we had to say “No” to.
In the bible, we like stories of how Jesus turns water in wine, of how he turns a little boy’s lunch into a feast for thousands (with baskets of leftovers to boot), of how God provides for us again and again and again.
But what happens when those folks go home after the miracle? What happens with the loaves and fishes run out? What happens when the wine runs dry?
A highly spiritualized response is not sufficient here.
Saying “God will take care of you” is not enough. In fact, it mocks the tangible reality of hunger, of eviction, of poverty, and of food scarcity. Saying that Jesus did all those miracles to show us how to rely on God is kind of simplistic.
We forget that the miracles end. We forget that the earthly food still runs out is as much of a lesson as the miracle itself. We focus on the plenty because we’re so anxious and hungry. We forget that tomorrow will bring more hunger and more fear.
Sometimes handing over a couple bags of groceries feels like giving a thirsty person in the desert a swallow of water. Not a cup full, not a canteen, not a spring; just a dribble. Just enough to get the mouth watering, ready to receive more needed water, but alas. No more! That’s it. That’s all. Make do with what’s given (and be grateful for it!).
Where are the holy spaces in this not enough life? Are there any?
I have to constantly remind myself that, as desperate as people are when the arrive at the food bank, the food bank isn’t their only source of food. Truthfully it can be for some for short spurts of time, but for most of our ongoing clients we are only a string in the web. Thankfully, other groups, family members, schools, churches, government departments and employers all help string together webs of support that alleviate the pressure to all things to all people at all times.
And certainly, we have to be aware of the gaps and cracks people fall through. We’re imperfect networks of support, and it’s not a question of IF people fall through; it’s automatically a questions of WHEN.
For me, I’m always seeking ways to address the reasons why people access food banks in the first place. If we go directly to these things and eradicate them, the need for the food bank model will diminish. Empowerment and the honouring of our neighbors will increase, and food sharing will become a lifestyle rather than a handout.
So there’s holiness in knowing that, as a food bank, we are not alone in supporting the same people.
There’s also a holiness in hearing real life from the people who live it. Often donors aren’t aware of how difficult it is to cook full meals with empty cupboards, much less healthy ones. And yet they expect food bank clients to perform top notch at work and at school, while living off of donated Sugar Puffs, Wagon Wheels, and Hearts of Palm (that makes what…?).
I can do all the public education I want to, but when someone self-advocates and says: “Pop Tarts are hurting my family!”, there’s holiness, humility and power there. No one can subsist on Pop-Tarts and hope to function well in life. And few people feel valued when all they are worth is a box of Pop-Tarts. The voices who speak to these realities are holy sparks of change and compassion.
Strangely enough, there’s also a kind of holiness when Pop-Tarts keep someone going. It isn’t the best; they aren’t the greatest; for people with health concerns, like diabetes, they can certainly pose a risk. Yet when all that’s left on the shelf are the Pop-Tarts and people consume them knowing they were shared in love, perhaps there’s a spark here too. It’s a frustrating and awkward spark, but a spark nonetheless.
My dream is that one day, food banks will close their doors for good. With the amount food waste that occurs in Canada annually, there’s no reason for anyone to be going hungry and/or living off of cheap junk food.
In the meantime, as I pass over those meager bags of groceries (my drop in the seeming endless ocean), I have to believe that there is more than I can see going on; there are more people loving my friends coming to the food bank; and that we are changing our perspectives on how we treat food.
Breaking bread is a holy act.
Let’s not throw it out. Rather, let’s take the over-abundance that is produced and learn how to share it better than we do.