As the smiling food pantry volunteers put our donation box in the back of the car, my two kids squealed with joy. I’ll admit it — after waiting over an hour in line, it did feel a bit like Christmas.
I pulled out of the lot, only to pull over again — a few blocks away — to study the contents of the box. As I slowly pried it open, I could hear my 3-year-old cheering, just as my heart sank.
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At first, I could only make out the 10 boxes of expired cookies and two bags of stale donuts that filled the box. The red line across the barcode signaled that a local grocery store had donated them because they were stale. Underneath, there was a large bag of Halloween candy that had recently been collected by a local dentist’s office. Under that, there were 12 cans of vegetables that had large red stickers across the top reading “DO NOT SELL,” and two boxes of cereal (both opened, with one box half gone). Then, at the very bottom, was a bottle of expired salad dressing and a package of seasoning (you know, the kinds of things you might grab from your kitchen once you realize that you need a food pantry donation for your kid’s school).
So, yeah, thanks for the salad dressing … we’ll be sure to use it on our nonexistent salads.
I know I had no right to complain (even if it was in my own mind.) Several months earlier, after my husband abandoned our family and left my two young kids and I on our own, I was truly stunned by how quickly my comfortable suburban life would transform into one of poverty. I was also amazed by how many people would rally around me. Not having family around to help us, we wouldn’t have made it without the support and generosity of our community.
But that doesn’t mean that I’d ever get used to the food pantry.
Being a stay-at-home mom, I didn’t have a job or childcare that I could rely on once my husband disappeared. I was working toward it, but I wasn’t there yet. And because I was still legally married and tied to my husband’s former income, I didn’t immediately qualify for food stamps either. So, the food pantry was our only option — even if that meant we would be eating expired cookies, stale donuts, a pound of recycled Halloween candy, and 12 cans of vegetables that weren’t meant for human consumption. Oh, and let’s not forget that expired salad dressing and package of seasoning!
But of course, something is definitely better than nothing, which is why I showed up every third Saturday to wait for our turn in line. And while I’d sit in my car, I’d ponder my life and what led me to this very place. I’d look at the cars around me, and wonder about their drivers' life stories. Were they sick and unable to work? Had they been unemployed for a long period of time? Or, were they lazy and simply scamming the system? (Yes, even the poor question who among them doesn’t belong.)
And then I would wonder about the people who had donated to the pantry — what had they thought of me?
Did they realize what I had just gone through? Did they know how hard I was working to pick up the pieces of my shattered life, to get my feet back on the ground? Did they know that I was been desperately searching for a job and daycare for my children? Did they judge me for needing help?
When they dropped off their expired salad dressing and half-eaten cereal into the donation box, did they think of me as human at all?
Month after month, I would sat in my car, waiting to see what sugary, fattening, expired and already-opened food I would have to feed my kids in the coming week. And I would fight the flood of emotions that would inevitably come.
There I’d sit, blaming myself for being in the position of needing help in the first place, while simultaneously trying to be grateful for the assistance I was getting. I was so appreciative to have something — but also saddened that the donations were mostly comprised of all the food that nobody else wanted to eat or serve their own families.
It’s been a over a year since we’ve eaten from a food pantry, but the experience will forever haunt my mind. The donation boxes that collect food for the poor should not double as trash cans, and collection drives should not be an opportunity to rid your pantry of everything expired. But all too often, it feels like they are.
So I’ll leave you with this: If you’re ever presented with an opportunity to help a family who is down on their luck, please feed them as if they were your own. Show them you care. Because if the tables were reversed, it’s what you would hope others would do for you.