Down to the Last Dime
Then again we live in a state that is notorious for high taxes, apparently due to its many social programs to benefit those in need (or so I've heard). I, for one, am very proud that the state does take seriously the needs of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, my family is now among them and we sit on that border between “hopeful middle class” and “poverty-level.” We make too much to get food stamps (though we qualify for medical assistance), but cannot seem to feed or cloth our family without using credit cards each month, which in turn puts us in further debt and makes us far poorer than we may externally appear.
Knowing I had to pay the tax bill, I began sifting through the list of important numbers mortgage, car payment, heating oil, electricity, etc. Cell phone and cable didn't stand out as important, though I knew I'd have to pay them if I wanted to keep our credit in good standing. Rich people would probably say, “If you’re so poor, why do you have a cell phone then?” Well, the answer is complicated. We've been holding out on the cell phone for two years now. First, we were stuck in a contract, so it would mean paying penalties if we just cut out and second, I worry immensely that in our rural location, during winter, I will become stranded with the children on some remote road in the middle of the night and will be unable to find help. The cell phone is, in essence, an emergency line and we have the cheapest plan possible. But even that is not cheap! The cable is similar. Without the cable line we'd have no TV (we cannot get a signal with a simple antenna) and even though the ideal Christian home should probably be TV-free these days, I just feel we cannot be entirely deprived of the outside news or programs for our children. And so we always have those bills, lagging behind. Those bills you hate to pay even more than your basic ones, but know you have to.
After assessing our monthly income and mailing out the bills as soon as they came in, I went to the town office (all three kids in tow) to pay the property tax bill. The office was unexpectedly crowded. For some reason I kept thinking Friday would be a good day. Apparently, so did everyone else. The kids were impatient and running around the old building. I had to keep them under control and my legs, stricken with some mystery illness I'm still trying to figure out, started their usual shaking. Given the nature of the bill, it felt urgent to get it paid early, and so I forced myself to stay and wait it out in the slow line. The children finally sat down on some chairs well, really they started to play silent musical chairs, exchanging seats with each other until I finally put a stop to it. The other residents in the office just smiled and remarked at the kids while I tried to keep my mind off my leg problem and kept repeating in my head, “Oh, come on! Hurry up, will you!” I wasn't targeting my thoughts at any one person in particular, but just at the event itself. I just wanted to get through that line and get out of there!
Finally our turn came up. The lady at the desk offered the kids some smiley-face stickers and my youngest happily replied, “Thank you” to my own astonishment. The other two (older children) just grabbed their stickers greedily, but my 2-year-old balanced the scene, as several persons immediately remarked at how clever she was to be so polite. I gave the check to the office assistant who began quickly to process the bill. I had to ask when the check would clear, knowing how little money we'd have left after it did. “Monday,” the woman replied, and I realized how broke we'd be at the beginning of the month. I didn't know how we would avoid the trap of using our credit cards again. My heart sank.
Swallowing My Pride
This is how I ended up at the food pantry. I'd seen the notice in the local paper about it, but never wanted to venture into it. My past experiences with food charity were not so pleasant. I remembered in my first year of marriage having to go to the food pantry in another state. I recalled how judgmental the women who were giving out the food seemed. They might not have been maybe I was just projecting my own insecurities. No one likes to feel vulnerable and poor; no one likes to be humiliated, and it can be humiliating when you are young and able-bodied and still unable to feed yourselves. At that time I worked a hated job as a cashier in a drugstore. I had started at minimum wage and after 6 years I had only received a raise of $2. It was pathetic and embarrassing.
Now I was facing that scenario again, or so I imagined. I gulped down my pride, thinking of my three children and husband and knowing I had to do this. Even if it was just for this month, I had to go and see what I could get. So after taking my eldest to kindergarten, I buckled the girls into the van and headed over to the Protestant church where the food pantry was located. It wasn't part of the church, I was told, but just situated there, and offered governmental supplements as well. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot. My nerves were on edge, but my children were eager to go in, thinking it was a store to explore or some other fun place. I pushed open the door and heard, “Can we help you?”
I tried to be polite, immediately drawing a thin smile on my face. It was intimidating to see how organized everything was. There were three people seated at a table which appeared to be the “front desk.” There were two ladies near the pantry counter and several other persons managing separate tables where bread and vegetables were laid out. The person who approached me explained the procedures while two nice ladies started sweet-talking the girls and gave them cheese-crackers. They didn't ask for income when I wrote down that I had received some assistance last year, and that was comforting. I had brought an income statement, account statement and bills just in case. I stuffed those back into my purse with some relief.
After the paperwork was finished, I was told to go over to the pantry where two elderly ladies would assist me. The first woman started asking me what kind of cereal the kids liked. I was a bit shy to “demand” certain types of cereal and so I was vague. Honestly, I am very picky about foods I give to the children. I know the concerns regarding MSG for children and women who are pregnant and since I thought I might be pregnant, I was hoping any food they gave us would not have MSG in it. But of course, most prepackaged foods do unless they are from the organic food section of a grocery store.
As the selection process continued, the two women kindly related what canned fruits they had, what type of veggies they had in stock, what juice they could offer. I noticed they gave us several cans of governmental stock which are packaged as an unknown brand. I could only imagine how long they'd been sitting around. But I would not be picky, I told myself. I could not afford to be picky, even if it meant giving my children food that I would not have chosen to purchase. I sighed and watched the women fill two grocery bags. Since we had 5 in our family, I was told we qualified for double the amount given to other people.
“Would you like some canned tomatoes?” I tried to look thoughtful but had to decline. I rarely make recipes with tomatoes and I knew the kids would not eat them. The woman pushed them three times, as they had a lot of them. They also gave us two large bags of chopped walnuts. I told the woman, “the kids might eat them as snacks,” and I hoped that my children would but underneath it all, I assumed they wouldn't.
When the two nice ladies were finished filling the bags, we were told to go to the produce table. We could only get food from the pantry once a month, but could come once a week to get produce or bread. The bread table was full of a lot of bread about to expire. I knew I could store some of it in the fridge but the packages without labels on them concerned me because I am sensitive to mold on bread. Most of it was good to eat that day, but I needed stuff for the children that would last several weeks.
The produce table was pretty much empty. They had a large box of potatoes which appeared to be remnants from a farm, very small potatoes that smelled old. I took a bag of them anyway and promised myself to use them right away. Then I made my way to the “bakery counter” where I was instructed to pick out one item. The products had a large X on the labels they were expired baked goods. Again, something one would have to eat quickly. I took a danish, since I needed to get as much as I could.
Upon departure, a couple of the charity workers offered to take the bags to my car. Since I had the children, I accepted their offer and exited the building with some relief. I put the food in the back and buckled the girls in and said “Thank you” to the woman assisting me. I still felt flushed, like you get when you are nervous. Despite their kind words, having all those workers in there made it difficult, as if everyone was watching or possibly questioning my need to use the pantry.
I Have My Suspicions
When I got home, the children were thrilled. They wanted to check out each item in the bag. I pulled them out and closely inspected them. Several cans were dented and I put them aside to research whether using them would be safe. Several boxes were outdated one was over a year old and I had to throw them out. There were packages with tape on them, as if someone returned something to a store. I still have those set aside, keeping them as last options. They might be good or they might not. I didn't keep the spaghetti box that had been opened, but I did keep the individual packet oatmeal since the packets are sealed. Still, it does make one feel inferior, doesn't it? Like eating food from a rich man's table that fell on the floor. It's not good enough for them, but it's good enough for the poor, good enough for my children.
There were also pudding cups which had been broken from a set and frozen stuffed chicken breasts in clear baggies without a box. Once again, it felt odd using food that was either opened or “broken” in some way. Saltine crackers in individual packets were thrown into plastic bags. For all I knew they came from someone at a restaurant who ordered soup and didn't eat all their crackers. There were brands I did not recognize and my reaction to these unusual brands was suspicion. Having moved several times and shopped in many different grocery stores over the years, I thought I'd seen most brand names. Yet here I was given odd brands to trust in the tummies of my children. Food is food, some people might say, but having become the informed mom that I am, it was hard to accept that I could no longer shop for healthy foods for my own children. I had to feed them the preservative-laden, chemically-heightened food and be thankful for it, just because it was charity. It just didn't seem right. To make matters worse, I tried the frozen chicken breasts late one night and ended up feeling quite sick afterward. Not being able to check the date on the box, I now worry about eating the other three.
The next day I thought a lot about this. I thought about times I gave to charity myself. Did I put in the least desirable product in the charity box? Was I like the anonymous donors at the local food pantry? Did I consider that many who need food are moms with children and that good, wholesome cereal is so much more appealing than sugar-hyped, colored-marshmallow cereal? Or that 10 cans of beans might be yummy to single men but not to children? Here on the receiving end I recognized that perhaps when we are giving to charity which we do because we love God and wish to help our neighbor that we are perhaps giving much, much less of ourselves than we realize. It's so much easier to toss in a box of spaghetti that has been in your cabinet for months now, rather than to consider that many poor people can already afford spaghetti and are probably quite sick of it. And if we, as Christians, believe we are serving Christ when we serve the poor, do we really wish to give Christ molding bread or smelly potatoes? You would think that we would be donating loaves of bread fresh out of the oven and scores of healthy treats and newly-baked pies which can warm any weary heart.
I will always be grateful for any charity I receive because I do know the heart of the giver is in the right place and at some point in life, we all deserve or need some charity. I just think we ought to consider the better alternatives in giving. Rather than give the most inexpensive foods at the market, donate some foods that you would gladly and securely feed your family. And don't think of giving used goods. That only makes the poor feel poorer and unworthy. Those who go into a food pantry should feel hope. Hope that things will get better. Hope that they are not worthless, but are meaningful. Hope that their children are special too and will be given wholesome foods to feed their young and growing bodies and minds.
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Susan C. Stratton is a freelance writer, wife and mother in Maine. For 10 years, she ran Baby Bunny Memorial (www.babybunny.net), for parents who had lost a baby, and is currently chairperson of the Corinna Chapter of Maine Right to Life and editor of The Maine Journal.