There’s a food drive happening at the school where I work. Several bins have been set up throughout the hallways, with cute kid-decorated signs that implore us to SCARE HUNGER and donate non-perishables for the local food shelf.
As I am wont to do, I look at the food as I walk by. Why? Because I like food. It’s like porn to me. I wish I was lying. So I walk by, several times a day, and gaze at the donations.
Dang. We have some swanky grocery shoppers at our school…the bins are filled with “fancy” foodstuff, lots of organic offerings, and some deviations from the standard mac and cheese/boxes of spaghetti. There’s rice pasta, artichoke hearts packed in seasoned oil, gluten-free crackers, olive tapenade….and quinoa. I look at those bins like Sylvester looked at Tweety Bird.
Like I was doing earlier this week. Walking by, checking out the bins. One of the women who helped organize the drive was in the hallway, and I called out to her “Wow! Look at all this awesomeness!” or something similarly enlightening. She beamed and said, “I know! The parents at this school are amazing.”
As she was saying this, another woman happened by. She smiled at us, like people who see each other several times a day in passing do, and then she 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 was fairly certain I’d just heard her say what I thought I’d heard her say…but it didn’t really sink in. It floated there, like a film of rainbow-hued oil over a puddle in the street.
I spoke up, while she was still within earshot. “What do you mean?” I wanted to know. I wanted to verify what she said, make sure I hadn’t misunderstood.
The woman stopped. She turned towards me, one hand holding a couple of manila folders, the other resting lightly on her hip. She was still smiling.
“Those people won’t know what most of that is. I mean, really, quinoa?”
Yep. I’d heard her correctly.
The last time I got groceries at our local food shelf was this past February. Eight months ago. The long-overdue child support from my ex kicked in later that month, and although it wasn’t much, it made the difference between being able to buy groceries and having to get them from a food shelf. For that, I’m grateful.
I can still remember the first time I visited the food shelf. I had driven by, so many times, trying to work up the courage to pull into the parking lot. I’d whisper to myself, “dammit, I can’t” and I’d keep driving, home to the barren fridge and the Old-Mother-Hubbard cupboards. Until the desperation overshadowed my pride.
Once you get past the hardest part, which is walking through the door, being at the food shelf isn’t so bad. I mean, it’s not something that inspires one to burst into song and run around high-fiving people, but as far as life experiences go, not so bad. Sure, there’s the heat on your cheeks as you fill out the paperwork, giving these strangers your life history. Telling them how you got into this pickle. This predicament. Telling them what you do for money, how much you get and how you spend it. But you get used to having hot cheeks. You become accustomed to averting your gaze so as not to make too much eye contact. You eventually become, dare I say, comfortable at the food shelf.
I quickly found out that food shelves are a lot like TJ Maxx…it’s hit or miss. Some days the shelves are full, and full of really good things. Annie’s Mac and Cheese. Organic marinara sauce. Fresh vegetables. Whole chickens in the freezer. Brie from Trader Joe’s that’s only 2 days past the expiration date. Other days, you have to scramble to even get near the required weight of food in your cart (yeah…you get a certain number of pounds of food, depending on the size of your family). Dented cans of creamed corn. Spoiled produce that even the most resourceful, broke chef couldn’t salvage. Individual sleeves of saltine crackers. But beggars can’t be choosers, right?
I visited the food shelf a total of 5 times in about 11 months. I only told one friend. I told my kids, and when I did, I expected them to laugh, or get angry, or embarrassed. They didn’t do any of those things. They helped me put the groceries away, and they did so quietly, not saying much other than the occasional exclamation of “Yum!” or “Gross!” I can recall for you, on command, most of the meals I made with food shelf 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, and smack the folders out of her hand. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, get up in her face and yell at her, “YOU CLUELESS, PRETENTIOUS BITCH! YOU DON’T KNOW HOW IT FEELS TO WALK INTO ONE OF ‘THOSE’ PLACES AND BE ONE OF ‘THOSE’ PEOPLE! YOU’VE NEVER HAD TO SWALLOW YOUR PRIDE AND ADMIT THAT YOU NEED A HAND! 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! YOU KNOW WHAT??? ‘THOSE PEOPLE’ WILL BE MOTHER EFFING GRATEFUL TO SEE THIS FOOD. THEY’LL BE SAYING SILENT PRAYERS AS THEY BOX THAT SHIT UP AND BRING IT HOME AND MAKE IT FOR THEIR FAMILIES. AND THEY WILL NEVER FORGET HOW IT FELT TO BE SO THANKFUL FOR SOMETHING AS SIMPLE AS FOOD!!”
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.