Thoughts from the Food Pantry

By chaoticidealism; originally posted on the blog Reports from a Resident Alien.

As some of you who’ve been following my blog might remember, I had a serious stress problem right around the middle of September, which led to my dropping all but one class and wishing I could sue my GP for caring more about my weight than the fact that I’d developed an irregular heartbeat (best guess? yes, stress-related). After three or four weeks, I had recovered pretty well; after five weeks, I was going stir-crazy having not much to do. There is something about me that is always, always aware that my time is limited; and I hate wasting any of it.

By mid-October, I found myself going to the local food pantry. The last time I’d been there was between the endless succession of jobs won and lost, when I couldn’t pinch another penny and the food money ran low. This time I was there because I wanted to volunteer. I’d always meant to do so, because I don’t like taking handouts; but the food pantry is open during the day and I usually had classes then, so I was limited to the church library and the cat shelter. At first, I volunteered at the pantry for three half-days a week; but eventually I found the stress level creeping back up, and reduced to two half-days. (Kind of pitiful, huh, when a person can’t even work three half-day shifts a week? But there it is. Maybe one of these days I will learn to accept that I am actually not some sort of lazy bum who can’t be bothered to put in a good day’s work… but to be honest, I am still telling myself exactly that, even though when I try, things get scattered and I tend to lose half my brain along the way. Granted, the job does trigger some of the easiest sources of overload; other places aren’ t as intense.)

Officially, my job is to listen to voice mail, take down relevant details, call the person back, get more details, and tell them when the office is open. The conversations are very formulaic, so I have little trouble with them, but the usual auditory-processing difficulty with phones does mean I have to concentrate very hard. I’ve learned to mentally “record” what was said, and play it over a few times until I can translate it into text. It’s better than face-to-face, though.

There’s a lot of chaos at the pantry that I wish I could get my hands on and re-organize. For one thing, the files are all still kept on paper–lots of index cards with names, addresses, phone numbers, and dates. Currently, we keep the records up to date by first having the client call the food pantry’s voice mail number, then calling the client back and getting their information correct on the intake form and perhaps correcting the information on their file card (which is handwritten, often misfiled or illegible); then they have to come in and fill out yet another form with basically the same information on it. What’s more, that same information has to be confirmed at every monthly visit (people are allowed to come in once a month; most don’t come in that often, though some do). If we had all this on computer, we wouldn’t have to fill out two forms every visit; we’d just have to update the relevant information on the computer and have them sign a simple statement that they’re below the income limit (twice the federal poverty line). But no. That would be too easy.

These people wait in line sometimes for three hours to come in; and the process for getting them through the pantry is painfully slow. They fill out all those forms while actually sitting at the desk with our one front desk attendant watching them. (Lately I’ve been handing them the forms to fill out while they’re sitting waiting in the hall. Apparently this is revolutionary.)

Another place where the process is really inefficient is that, after the client fills out the forms and receives the basic groceries that everybody gets, they are directed to a second person, who helps them choose eight to ten items from a group of shelves. And, while they stand there taking their time choosing, the front desk person (who now has nothing to do) sits there and doesn’t call in the next person until the first person is completely done choosing their groceries, which can take five minutes or more. The reasoning behind this completely baffles me. I know it has nothing to do with privacy because these people have already been sitting in the hall for a couple of hours, where everyone who walks by sees them. Have they never heard of the concept of an assembly line? Pass the first person on to the food shelves and start processing the next!

If I’d designed this system, there would be two people manning the front desk, helping two people at a time, and no voice-mail rigmarole at all. We’d use the computer that’s sitting right there on the desk, instead of the huge file of illegible, misalphebetized cards. And, while it’s nice to be able to choose some of your own groceries, it’s nicer not to sit there for three hours, so I’d cut those down to three or four. It’s really not rocket science. I’m almost certain I could cut down the average appointment from something like fifteen minutes to something like five–confirm your information, pick up your groceries, and go.

Apparently, whoever did design the system was thinking, “But these are poor people! They have nothing better to do but stand in line!”

Right. Because they couldn’t possibly want to be in the job office down the hall looking for employment, or home putting up their feet after a day as a Wal-Mart greeter, or taking care of their six kids they’re inexplicably trying to feed on $57 in food stamps.

I looked up my own card from the food pantry’s files. It shows I’ve been there seven times. My experience, apparently, was typical; most clients don’t come back year after year. They tend to come in for a few months, when times are hard, and then not need the food pantry anymore.

A lot of people seem to think that those who ask for “handouts” are invariably deadbeats; but I’ve seen very little of that. Among those that consistently use the food pantry, there are a lot of retired people, whose social security checks don’t cover everything they need. There’s a fairly large number of disabled people, as well, especially those whose disabilities come in the form of chronic illness. And then there are the people who are working, but whose jobs don’t pay enough to feed their families–especially those in the awkward spot of earning too much to get food stamps but not enough to pay for food and rent simultaneously. Those are the typical long-term clients.

Short-term, you’ll see homeless people, women from the battered women’s shelter, and the recently unemployed. That last group is, not surprisingly, bigger than it ever was before. Maybe that’s part of the reason for the chaos; there are just more people coming in than the food pantry has been used to helping, and the food pantry (being run by traditionalists, and with mostly retired people for volunteers) simply hasn’t had the time to adjust. When you’ve been giving out twenty orders of groceries per day, and suddenly get asked to give out fifty or sixty, I guess it can get understandably difficult. (That doesn’t mean I like the chaos any more, though, however good an excuse there is for it.)

Those who actually take advantage of the food pantry probably represent 1% or less of the people who come in. Families who report that they get $300 or more in food stamps for two adults and a child, but come in for groceries anyway… Yeah, I’ve got difficulty believing they are actually in real need. There are a few families where just about everybody comes in–Mom, Dad and his new girlfriend, their six grown kids living scattered around town, generally taking care of kids of their own–where you know people were simply raised in the welfare system. But these families are actually very few and far between. The average client, like I said, is a person who’s going through hard times, and, once he gets out of his sticky situtation, won’t need to come back.

The people assembling the actual bags of groceries are a bunch of kids in a federal “jobs for youngsters” program–ages sixteen to twenty-four, assigned to the food pantry. They spend a lot of time being similarly inefficient; but I can’t blame them, since there are three of them hired to do a job that one person can do easily (I know; I’ve done said job by myself several times). Maybe I have an advantage over the average person when it comes to figuring out efficiency, though, because I have to sit back and plan the way to do all sorts of things, from taking showers to cleaning rooms; because if I don’t, I get confused midway through and completely lose track. Instead of just going and doing it, planning on the fly like most people do, I look at the situation as a sort of theoretical problem, all the parts of the task like tetris pieces in my head, fitting them together into a useful arrangement. If you think about things before you do them, you can generally see where the procedure could be changed to make things easier. Most people don’t seem to do that because they’ve never had problems planning things on the fly, because they can multi-task whenever they like, instead of having to plan things out beforehand like I do.

It’s annoying, though, because I have been trying to be friendly to everybody; but I still can’t recognize anybody. The volunteers tend to come in once or twice a month (apparently I am odd for coming in twice a week); so I have only a day’s exposure to them until they come back in two or four weeks. I haven’t learned to recognize the youngsters filling the grocery bags, either; but we are now in that awkward stage where I haven’t memorized them, but they memorized me long ago. So I have to try to guess who is in what group, whether they are a client or a worker or a volunteer, and respond appropriately. It’s a bit confusing.

I try to keep to myself. Apparently this has been unsuccessful, because one boy told me he liked me, and I responded that I already had a boyfriend because I didn’t want to have a half-hour discussion about what “I’m asexual” means (yes, yes, I know, I should be more forthright about it… there’s little enough awareness as-is… mea culpa, really). And then today, another boy came up to me and asked whether I had been talking about people behind their backs. I was puzzled and confused, because not only don’t I talk about people behind their backs when I can’t even recognize who is who yet, I don’t talk much about people at all. So I told him I was puzzled and confused, and that I don’t talk about people behind their backs, and he went away. I still have no clue what that was all about.

At least I can recognize the lady who runs the food pantry. She has a distinctive pattern of wrinkles on her neck, but I know better than to comment about it because old people are inexplicably ashamed of their wrinkles. I’m just thanking my lucky stars that older people look different from each other, instead of practically interchangeable like younger people do. She is probably quite old, because she has been running the food pantry for a while, and was retired already when she started it. Now the problem is that she is getting older and can’t work full days anymore; so the only people who are left are volunteers, and very few volunteers come often enough to really become veterans at it. Lots of people don’t know the answers to questions clients ask; and sometimes clients and their questions fall through the cracks between shifts. There’s no good way for people to communicate, and it’s frustrating. People just hope they mention the right things to the right person. I have given up on mentioning anything and taken to writing notes.

So I suppose you would think that with all this complaining I am doing, I don’t like working at the food pantry. But that’s not true; I actually like it, most of the time. The thing about giving food to people is that even when people are looking for handouts, all you’re handing them is food. Not a free ride, just a full stomach. And anyway, how are you supposed to find a job or take care of your kids or survive your shift at Wal-Mart if you’re either dizzy from not enough food, or sick because you could only afford cheap junk?

I don’t know why more college students don’t do things like this. Most people have families and jobs and spend all their time on those things; but college students usually don’t. I think maybe they just don’t know how to go about it. My school actually has a class to teach people how to do volunteer work, including the basics of how to start a non-profit organization.

Times are hard; and when that happens, people help each other out. We are too big a town here to really consider each other neighbors, but “fellow human being” is good enough, especially if you study philosophy. And anyway, it’s good for people to do something about the general crappiness of the world. We don’t feel as helpless that way.