Wednesday mornings I volunteer at ‘The Pantry’, a food bank located at John Knox Presbyterian Church. Early in the morning I sort fruits and vegetables and display them in a pleasant way for clients to pick up; ironically my first job as a young teen was sorting and displaying fruits and vegetables in an urban farm stand. Flashbacks.
At 10:00 am ‘The Pantry’ opens and I do ‘intake’ which involves talking with the clients and making entries in an area wide database that tracks income, number of people in the family, address, visits to the pantry, and the like. This not only ensures that we are serving the clients in need and prevents jumping from one pantry to another, but allows us to identify other pressing needs that can be addressed.
Ironically my first professional job was serving as an intake worker for the Texas Department of Welfare on the border of El Paso and Juarez. More flashbacks. The difference being that, at ‘The Pantry’ I am not restricted from talking to clients about their lives, faith, and outlooks. Many enjoy a few minutes of sharing, caring or even banter, as do I.
The primary focus of ‘The Pantry’ is to find food that would normally be discarded by restaurants and food stores or to purchase it at a low cost to distribute in a fair and orderly manner to those that do not have enough. There are also programs that work with diabetics and others who need a specific diet, as well as, encouragement them to follow food plans. ‘The Pantry’ can help clients apply for SNAP, the food stamp program, as well as, refer others to a broad base of resources in the community. The intake volunteers do some referral, but we mostly send clients to the social workers.
I have a reputation for keeping the social workers busy. In the past few weeks I referred: a man released from prison the previous day who had to start with nothing; a victim of domestic violence still in need of basic medical and financial care; a woman whose husband was hospitalized for mental illness who was reeling from all the repercussions of life and financial change; a man who lost his job when the store he worked for closed; and many more. Just chatting with clients uncovers opportunities where ‘The Pantry’ can help.
I receive much more at ‘The Pantry’ than I give. The other volunteers are fun to be around and we share some of the same life passions. The clients are very interesting people from different social strata and many different countries. It is fascinating to hear the stories of the Vietnamese, Burmese and Sudanese people. I reconnect with places I knew in Latin America and practice a little of my poor Spanish. I see how people live, people that are not in my comfortable church and social groups.
Recently, I was chided by an acquaintance for helping lazy, unproductive people remain lazy, living off a system paid for by hard working people. These lazy people should face the consequences of their poor choices, aka sins, and not be bailed out by food stamps, school lunches, and food banks. I thank God for helping me escape the consequences of my many poor choices. It is a mystery, but Christ died and freely took on the consequences of my poor choices, aka sins. God has been generous in giving me my daily bread. Our model as Christians should be helping others rather than judging them, for sometimes real, but most often perceived, poor choices.
Dependency on welfare and give-a-ways can be an issue though. I think that ‘The Pantry’ addresses the problem but, as always, more could be done. The screening is gentle, but mostly effective in making sure the help goes to those that need it. There are not many people who would stand in line for vegetables and bread if they were not in need. The Pantry often fills in the gaps, as food stamps and other aid take 6 weeks to process, or can be immediately cut if income rises during small bouts of seasonal and temporary work. Some people don’t quite qualify for food stamps, but have high medical bills leaving little discretionary income. ‘The Panty’ allows them to have healthier food than they might otherwise have been able to afford. Most people served by ‘The Pantry’ are doing the best that they can to provide for themselves.
We serve people who aided the US in Vietnam, escaping in dangerous little boats to a life of menial work and a retirement of subsistence living; people married to a spouse that has severe metal or physical issues that restrict work; cancer victims; and people being laid off from subsistence work due to a plant closing. It is a clear biblical mandate to feed the hungry, and I see more of Christ in the people waiting for food on Wednesday mornings than I see laziness.