Last Halloween, there was a food drive at the school where I work. Strolling by one day, I checked out the bins. There were gluten-free crackers, rice pasta, olive tapenade, artichoke hearts packed in seasoned oil, and quinoa. Another woman happened by. She smiled, then said this:
“Too bad they won’t know what to do with most of it.”
It was one of those moments in life when your ears hear something but your brain can’t quite process it. I asked, “What do you mean?”
The woman turned toward me, still smiling. “Those people won’t know what most of that stuff is. I mean, really. Quinoa?”
Yep. I’d heard correctly. Those people.
At that moment, it had been eight months since the last time I had gotten groceries at our local food pantry. Eight months since the long-overdue child support from my ex-husband kicked in. Even though it wasn’t much, it made the difference between being able to buy enough food for the five of us and having to supplement from a food pantry. For that, I’m grateful.
I can still vividly recall my first time visiting the food pantry. I’d driven by many times, trying to work up the courage to pull into the parking lot. I’d whisper “I can’t” and keep driving, home to the barren refrigerator and the “Old Mother Hubbard” cupboards. Until desperation overshadowed my pride.
Once you get past the hardest part, which is walking through the door, being at the food pantry isn’t so bad. Sure, there’s the heat on your cheeks as you fill out the paperwork, giving these strangers your life history. Explaining what you do for money, how much you get, and what you spend it on. But you get used to having hot cheeks.
I quickly learned that food pantries are hit-or-miss. Some days the shelves are full, and with really good things. Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. Organic marinara sauce. Fresh vegetables. Whole chickens in the freezer. Brie from Trader Joe’s that’s only two days past the expiration date. Other days, you have to scramble to get near the required weight. (You get a certain number of pounds of food depending on the size of your family.) Dented cans of creamed corn. Spoiled produce. Individual sleeves of saltine crackers. But beggars can’t be choosers, right?
I visited the food pantry a total of five times over the course of 11 months. When I told my kids, I expected them to laugh or get angry or be embarrassed. Instead, they helped me put the groceries away, quietly. I can recall almost all the meals I made with food pantry goodies. Oven-roasted chicken with quartered rosemary potatoes. Turkey chili. French toast. More mac and cheese than I care to admit. One of my favorites was an organic risotto, flavored with mushrooms and olive oil.
I wanted to walk up to that woman in the hallway, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her as I yelled at her, “You don’t know a thing about how it feels to walk into one of ‘those’ places and be one of ‘those’ people. You’ve never looked at your kids and had to hide your tears because you had no idea how you were going to feed them.” I wanted to say that, but I didn’t. Instead, all I could muster was:
“I like quinoa.”
To which she replied, “Well, yes, of course. You’re not one of those people.”
If only she knew.