Today it is Ruby’s Pantry. It will be my first time. Each food shelf has their own rules. Most have been born out of trial and error over the years of each one’s evolution. Ruby has deemed it best to let all its guests remain outside until her army of volunteers have assembled the food on tables in the gathering space of the church they are housed in once a month. That way they won’t have the hordes tripping over pallets and boxes before everything is set up. I learn later that by volunteering to be one of her worker bees you avoid the lines outside altogether and get first dibs at the groceries. Smooth move, Ruby.
It is 7 degrees Fahrenheit this morning in rural Minnesota, Isanti county to be exact, colder, about -22 F if you factor in the windchill. Most of the people waiting outside look like they are dressed for a day of Minnesota ice fishing in padded snow pants, boots, fur hats and leather gloves. There are several balaclava, and a few ushanka, the Russian Soviet soldiers’ winter army fur hats, making this look like a Siberian Soviet dispatchment. I even see some raccoon and fox tail lumberjack hats. The man in front of me points to one and informs me that the orange suit guy made his own hat, complete with fox ears standing up on top. A few have kids with them, dressed identically. Each holds two large produce boxes or laundry baskets for their haul today. I am totally unprepared to stand out here. I ask the man ahead of me in line how long do you typically wait to go in. He tells me it is usually about half an hour. I go into meditation mode: think about tropical islands, hear the waves, feel the sand between my toes and the sun on my face. It works for the next 5 minutes.
I turn to see the line behind me has grown another several dozen people. At least 50 are ahead of me in line, exactly 53, but who is counting, and cars are still coming, circling the totally inadequate church parking lot. I try again to transport myself to Bali without much success.
I see many of the people smoking and wonder to myself if that warms them. I am tempted. Finally the doors open and as if this were Macy’s on Black Friday, the line attacks the vestibule. The queue snakes back and forth until about three quarters of its bulk is tightly packed in. A few stragglers are still outside.
The first two people are admitted to the check-in table housed inside another space. Christian rock music roars from the room. Coffee machines and platters of cookies stand ready along one wall. Little tables and chairs are spread out in this second space. After one registers you are given a poker chip with your number on it and told to wait until you are called to go to door number three.
Each of us funnels in, stopping at the registration table and pay our $20. Some food pantries are free and some ask for donations to be able to supplement their costs. There are three tables with children’s books we are invited to choose from; one book for each child or grandchild in your household. And now we wait once more.
I pull out my knitting. I am getting to be a pro at this. I have finished four major needlework projects in the past year made just during the waits like this one. I am on to a sweater this time, the wool collected from various local thrift stores. It is amazing what one can find in thrift stores and Goodwill. I call the yarn “rescued” like shelter dogs and cats. If I hadn’t found them, they would be consigned to a back shelf in a thrift store for the rest of their dusty, unlucky lives until they are similarly euthanized.
Today I am number 54. Five numbers are called at a time. There seems to be about a ten-minute gap between the calls on the megaphone. It really is a megaphone. I look around to find the caller. It is an older 70-ish man with a white pony tail in military fatigues. He announces that incoming people are entering on the right, near the free coffee and when he calls the numbers, we must exit through the left door. These instructions are repeated every time he calls the next numbers out.
The piped-in music stops and a woman gets on the P.A. system, inviting people to take books home and then announces a prayer. The decibels in the room lower slightly as she prays out loud, thanking the Lord for our blessings today and asking him to make us all grateful for all we are given.
I knit as I watch people coming and going. There are still people packing the vestibule, waiting to register and cars are still circling the parking lot. I ask one of the women at my table what number are they up to. She tells me 35. I can’t hear well when I am in a totally silent room even with my hearing aids. This place renders me completely deaf.
The food is all part of a larger network of grocery seconds and soon-to-be-expired goods from major food chains and warehouses throughout the state. The umbrella agency is called Second Harvest. From Wikipedia: clients, who told him that she regularly fed her family with discarded items from the grocery store’s garbage bins. She told him that the food quality was fine, but that there should be a place where unwanted food could be stored and later accessed by people who needed it, similar to how banks store money.
Van Hengel began to actively solicit this unwanted food from grocery stores, local gardens, and nearby produce farms. His effort led to the creation of St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix, the nation’s first food bank.
In 1975, St. Mary’s was given a federal grant to assist in developing food banks across the nation. This effort was formally incorporated into a separate non-profit organization in 1976.
In 2001, America’s Second Harvest merged with Foodchain, which was the nation’s largest food-rescue organization at that time.
In 2005, Feeding America began using an internal market with an artificial currency called “shares” to more rationally allocate food. Currency is allocated based on the need, and then individual banks bid on which foods they want the most, based on local knowledge and ability to transport and store the food offered. Negative prices are possible, so banks could earn shares by picking up undesirable food. The previous centrally planned system had penalized banks for refusing any food offered, even if it was the wrong type to meet their needs, and this resulted in mis-allocations (“sending potatoes to Idaho”), food rotted away in places that didn’t need it, and the wrong types of food being delivered (e.g. not matching hot dogs with hot dog buns).
In May 2007, it was featured on American Idol, and named as a charity in the Idol Gives Back charity program. September 2008, the organization name was changed to Feeding America.
In August 2009, Columbia Records announced that all U.S. royalties from Bob Dylan’s album Christmas in the Heart would be donated to Feeding America, in perpetuity.
There has been a rise in the numbers suffering from hunger since the financial crisis of 2007–2008. In 2013, the USDA reported that about 49 million U.S. Americans were now facing the condition, about one in six of the population. In September, they launched Hunger Action Month, with events planned all over the nation, to raise awareness and get more U.S. Americans involved in helping out.
In 2015, Feeding America saved more than 2 billion pounds (907 metric tons) of food that would have been thrown away otherwise, but could instead be distributed to hungry families.
Feeding America works to educate the general public and keep them informed about hunger in America. The national office produces educational and research papers that spotlight aspects of hunger and provides information on hunger, poverty and the programs that serve vulnerable Americans. Feeding America’s public policy staff works with legislators, conducting research, testifying at hearings and advocating for changes in public attitudes and laws that support Feeding America’s network and those the organization serves.
In 2017, Feeding America announced a plan to increase the nutritional value of food from food banks. By 2023, the group plans to offer more fruits and vegetables, and provide training so they can distribute more produce, whole grains and lean proteins. (End of article.)
I look around the room. The thing is I don’t feel poor. I live in a tiny apartment with my husband. It is enough for us. I don’t need and have never owned a house. We eat three times a day. Sure I make plenty of soups when I have extra vegetables or leftovers, and I never buy processed foods like pizza or frozen dinners. To round out the food shelves’ offerings, I try to buy in bulk at chains like Costco. I portion the food when I get home, freezing what I will use later in the month. Aldi’s is my next go-to store. Their costs still hover around 40% less than Cub or Rainbow. I receive Social Security retirement benefits and we are both still working, though we are over 65. $12 an hour isn’t stellar, but we are definitely not malnourished. We fall under the poverty line for income but we make just slightly over the cutoff to be eligible for food stamps or the SNAP supplemental food program in Minnesota. We actually chose to keep our income limited after the Vietnam war, our way of protesting the money going toward the military, staunch pacifists that we are, still.
We have a car and heat and clean water. Much of the world does not. The homeless in Minnesota have far less. When we are given food, especially cakes, donuts, cookies and things I shouldn’t eat since I have reactive hypoglycemia, a form of diabetes, I store these groceries until I visit friends that still have kids at home and must be worse off than we are. Canned soup has more sodium than is allowed for my husband’s low salt diet. I have an empty nest now, but when we had 5 children at home and lived in Wisconsin, and my husband was laid off, I applied and received food stamps. I schemed my utmost to make them last for a month and just couldn’t stretch them past the three-week mark. I finally called a social worker and asked for any suggestions. She read to me from a guidelines pamphlet: “A typical lunch for a teenage boy should be 1 cup of cooked macaroni and cheese and ½ an apple.” I was incredulous. Really? You’ve gotta be kidding me! But that’s what it suggested. What did people with less wherewithal than I do?
Finally my number is called after knitting for an hour. I am whisked through the proper left door and find myself now paired with a spry little senior citizen pushing a small flatbed cart. He grabs my 2 boxes and sprints behind the flatbed to the first station. He grabs a 10-pound bag of frozen diced potatoes and hurls it into the box, frisbee-style. I have to jog to keep up with him. He tells me I can refuse any items I don’t want but they would prefer we take it all and give it to friends. The only item I refuse is a 12-pack of canned Coca Cola. We run to accept frozen hamburger packages, sausages, chicken, cookies, pizzas, boxed cereals, cookies, breads, hamburger helper, turkey stuffing, more cookies, oatmeal, and flour, and we finally come to the end. Both of my boxes are overflowing. I am silently calculating whether, when I give away the non-nutrient-filled groceries, is the rest still worth my $20? I decide it is. I will be back next month…dressed more appropriately.
My boxes are tossed onto the sidewalk outside the church, the dolly is whisked back inside and I am given a plastic-coated number in exchange for my poker chip, while being instructed to go get my car. When I drive up, I put the car in park and pop the trunk. I see beefy volunteers tossing the boxes in people’s trunks and adding cases of gourmet ice cream on top of the boxes. The trunk is slammed shut and I am waved on through before I have a chance to say thank you.
Whew, what a trip!
The following Friday rolls around. It is Manna Market day! Not a relative of Ruby, but still part of Second Harvest. It all started rolling when The Gray Panthers as they were once called, the senior citizens who braved the heat and cold, rain and snow and lobbied until they succeeded and put at least a little kink into the works and managed to recycle some of the tons of food being destroyed around the country and put it back on the tables of people who could use it. Back in the 1970s and 80s the big food chains reasoned that if they gave any of it away, people who ate outdated food and got sick could sue them, but their bigger concern was that people would stop buying at their stores having gotten free handouts. We now know both are not true.
When our husbands were in college, friends of ours who had grown up in India with their missionary parents introduced up to dumpster diving. You go out behind the biggest groceries and check out their dumpsters. Everything that didn’t fit on the already over-stocked shelves got chucked out. All the produce that didn’t win the beauty contests that day got tossed. Cheese and yogurt that would reach their expiration dates in the coming days had to go. We found whole trays of kiwis still in their green tissue paper wrappers. There was cheese from Holland, gourmet yogurts, heads of broccoli and cauliflower still sprinkled with ice chips from the displays. We’d work the stores in St. Paul and our friends would hit the Minneapolis ones. At the end of the day we’d compare our loot and trade over a potluck supper, our babies rolling around on the floor: If they got tons of cauliflower and we had plantains, we’d swap. We got so good at it we figured out what times of the day the produce guys had their dates with the dumpsters and we’d intercept them. One place just rolled the carts out the back door and didn’t even bother to dump it into the bins, knowing we’d take it off their hands. A year after that a new trend emerged: grocery stores started spraying the dumpsters with pesticides to deter the homeless and people like us from accessing them. Cub Foods brought in a crusher shortly after that where all the food got smashed beyond recognition before it was pitched. I wrote a letter to National Public Radio protesting this new state of affairs and it actually got read by Ian North on All Things Considered. I don’t know if anyone up the food chain noticed.
So it is again Friday night. Manna Market has developed into a seamless machine. I am duly impressed. The doors of the gymnasium at the local school open promptly at 5 p.m. Not more that 5 people are waiting outside, though the line inside quickly fills out after that. We shuffle past theregistration table signing ourselves in on our cards. Each person is given a raffle-type ticket. A woman at the end of the table rips the tickets in half, giving back the number and dropping its twin into an oversize pretzel jar. We continue to shuffle—there are lots of old people ahead of us—making their way to the coffee machines. There is no fee here and again the snacks are free, only Manna Market encourages healthy eating. They have the standard donuts and cookies but there are also platters of veggies and dip and apples and other fruit. We shuffle on to a table where we park our coffee and snacks and settle in for the wait.
I think back to another food shelf I found years ago. They distributed food by weight: so many pounds per person in the family. It sounded fair. I would fill my box and wait my turn by the scales. If I was even one ounce over our limit, I would have to return one potato or a carrot or an apple until the needle on the scale registered the correct amount–exactly.
But back to Manna Market. I take out my knitting, hang my coat on the back of my chair and sit at one of the long tables to sip my coffee. All the tables will be filled by 6 p.m. when registration ends and the ticket stubs are brought up to the podium. First there are announcements. “Tonight is a raffle for a child’s bike that was donated.” Just what the ancient couple at my table needs. Then we are reminded that on our way back to our cars we are banned from using our cell phones. “The parking lot is not lit and there have been a few close calls where cars didn’t see people in the parking lot. Unattended children are not allowed to run around the school halls. Every 7th number can pick up a bag of Halloween candy from the table by the podium to take home.” Halloween was 6 months ago. She continues, “If you are still drinking your coffee, you cannot get in line when your number is called. You must dump it out in the bucket placed on the folding chair in front of the podium. A trash can is provided for your Styrofoam cup. Please make your choices quickly tonight to keep the line moving.”
Then one of the senior pastors from the local Lutheran church takes the mic and asks for quiet, which lasts about 45 seconds at the most. He gives a proper homily on gratitude that goes on for 10 minutes. Then he sings a bible song. No one chimes in, so it is essentially a solo performance, all 5 verses. Last week it was “Rock of Ages.” He ends with a prayer and reminds everyone there are blue sheets on the tables to write any prayer requests that will be brought to the staff at their next meeting.
Then the numbers are called. They are also posted on an overhead projector for us hard of hearing folks. The numbers are picked out of the pretzel jar and called one at a time slowly, like at a bingo game. There is a group of people with name tags behind the caller who meet each number and carry a box for you. It would definitely put a snag in the works should an old person drop a box full of groceries and need to be rescued. The caller continues to call numbers and people pack up their belongings and head for the other half of the gym. They are met by one of the box holders who write the name and number on the box. Half way through the maze is another group of box people who are ready to issue you another box with your name and number should your box be full already. Today half of the box people are girls wearing fake diamond-studded tiaras. One lady at my table informs me that it is some junior high girls’ club from the Lutheran school doing their community service hours.
Unlike Ruby’s Pantry, the numbers are not assigned as you register, but are picked randomly once everyone has registered. There are at least 30 tables and about 8 people at a table I figure. About 240 people or more. Some days my number has been called after waiting only 10 minutes at the tables. Other nights I wait over an hour and there are still others who must wait even longer. It is already after 7 p.m. this night. I came at 5. I knit on.
There are definite cliques here. I start to notice clutches of friends at different tables each week, some holding places with their coats or boxes for others still coming. I am part of a clique, too. After several weeks I find myself surrounded by a deaf couple and a Native American woman. I have enjoyed the couple immensely, jumping at any chance to practice my sign language. A few years ago I learned that senior citizens could go to college for free in Minnesota and I promptly signed up for American Sign Language, ASL. After 2 semesters, I am feeling like I can get most conversations. The Native American lady came over each week to see the progress I was making on the needle point project I was working on at the time and finally just joins my table each week. She whips out her phone and soon we were comparing craft projects, grandchildren and similar hobbies.
The only unwelcome guest at our table is Hugo. The first time I came to Manna Market he sat next to me and came out with totally inappropriate sexual harassment jabs. I was completely unprepared for that. A pickup at a food shelf? You’ve gotta be kidding. Right? I was quiet for a minute and then pulled out my deaf card, a sure turn-off. “I cannot hear you when you hunch over your phone like that. I am deaf and I need to see you when you talk to me.” It worked, of course. Then I promptly got up and reported the incident to one of the senior pastors who had absolutely no idea what to do. Finally I told the pastor that he needed to keep an eye on the guy and make sure he didn’t bother any other women, especially girls who wouldn’t know how to handle themselves. The next week he tried it again. I didn’t say anything but just got up and joined a group of women across the room. He hasn’t bothered me again since. I am ready, though. One wrong look, one word and I will SCREAM at him that I am calling the police and will do it, too. He chose his victim poorly. A survivor of childhood trauma is not someone you want to fool with.
Finally my number is called. A school girl greets me with a huge smile, a box in her hand and a slightly crooked tiara on her head, her teeth covered in matching silver braces. The first table has a pile of gigantic whole salmon fillets. Salmon! I haven’t had salmon in years! I say yes and the girl grabs a plastic-coated salmon. At the next table are three piles of various meats. I can pick one of the three I want, but not items from other piles then. I choose sausage links, a hoagie sandwich and hamburger meat. We move on, my box hardly standing still at any one table. Next I can pick any three vegetables: a bag of potatoes, a bag of onions, eggplants, hot peppers and cucumbers. I choose and those get dropped in the box. It continues to fill with fruit, produce, heads of lettuce, tomatoes, avacados, and bunches of cilantro, chard and beet greens. My first box gets spirited away while I am studying the next table of three choices. There are towers of kefir, hummus, tofu, tempe, yogurts, mango juice and several items I am clueless as to what they are. I choose one as my box is propelled down to the next table. Cereals, cake mixes, noodles, soups, chips, crackers, donuts, cookies, cakes, candy and breads complete the giveaways today. On my way out the door to the parking lot I pass another table with cosmetics and baby food. I am told to pick one of each. I pass. A pastor shakes my hand on the way out and wishes me a good night.
I drive the car up to the alley behind the school and line up between the orange cones funneling us up to the last tables now outdoors. A truck is stacked high with gallons of milk. A table holds cases of pop and another table is piled with dog and cat food, which I decline. My boxes are loaded into the trunk for me, the hatch slammed shut and I am off within seconds.
As a writer, I am intrigued as I observe humanity in all its forms around me. I ponder the lives of all those people I saw tonight. I say a prayer for them as I drive home. I add a prayer for Hugo, too.