We didn’t get one of those luscious looking watermelons this time. There weren’t enough to go around and I was too far back on the line to hope for such luck.
I have no cause to complain, however, as I did manage to bring home both blueberries and strawberries. In the supermarket, those berries would have cost close to $15 and we would have passed them up, as we always do, as being far too expensive. So thank you, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for making fresh fruit possible for many of us who would otherwise go without.
The truck arrived early and honked its horn to request that we move our folding chairs and rolling carts so that it could back up close to the curb. Shirley at the food bank had clued me in about this particular food distribution, twenty minutes and two towns up the freeway from the church parsonage. “It’s where I send my older clients,” she informed me, as only about 25 people typically show up in the line, as opposed to the hundreds who snake around the parking lot at the food distribution in our own town. It’s nice to know that getting old still has a few perks. Indeed, this whole embarrassing business of collecting free food took us only an hour, instead of half the day.
This event, which occurs monthly, was held in a rundown apartment complex on the back side of an industrial area in the south end of town. Most of my fellow queuers, who strolled over with their bags and little wheeled carts, appeared to reside in one or another of the identical single-story white buildings with green trim. The woman in line behind me asked me whether I lived in “the camp.”
Most of the conversations going on around me were in Spanish, and I soon learned the word billete. Apparently, you must have one in order to obtain your bag of canned goods off the truck. It didn’t take long for the line to move forward, across the brown, withered grass and down the concrete path to the vacant apartment where a woman was singlehandedly staffing the sign-in table. As I stepped over the threshold, I was glad to be indoors, out of the intense rays of the sun, already blazing hot at 8:30 in the morning. When I reached the table, the staffer and a client appeared to be engaged in a detailed discussion in Spanish, complete with much pointing at each of the four fields on the sign-in sheet. I simply grabbed the other clipboard, signed in and went out to the truck.
That’s not the way it works. You have to hand the truck driver a billete or no food for you. So back inside I went to obtain my little ticket. Fortunately, there were only a few stragglers waiting on line by this point. Billete in hand, I went back out to the truck and obtained my very heavy bag of cans.
As for the produce and bread, it was a free-for-all. You just grabbed what you wanted out of the boxes and whoever was fastest got the best of the offerings. This was very different than the other food distributions I have attended; at one of them, I thought a worker was going to slap my hand when I foolishly dared to reach for a banana.
My wife helped me load up an empty bag with those items that we thought we would use. By that time, the place had already been pretty well picked out, though. We were thrilled to get the berries, and we did end up with a nice little pile of redskin potatoes, which for some reason no one else seemed to want. I’ve been eating them for days now, and they’re wonderful.
We were able to get a half-loaf of garlic bread, a bag of rolls, a package of bagels and a loaf of some type of French bread with a crunchy topping. We ended up throwing all of it out when it went moldy within a day or two.
There was also cake. I saw several fairly large chocolate cakes that had been dumped by a local supermarket after reaching expiry without being sold. The frosting on some of them had been melting in the sun, separating from the cakes and coating the underside of the plastic clamshell lids in which they were encased.
One old lady with a sweet tooth piled three of those mushy looking cakes into her bag and was sternly reprimanded by the truck guy. Warned that they were only one to a customer, she was forced to put back the extras. But then she surreptitiously (or so she thought) retrieved her extra cakes. “Go home!” the truck guy yelled at her. “I’m warning you, get out of here or I’m taking you off the list!”
The list again. The importance of being “on the list” cannot be underestimated if you hope to supplement this month’s meals with some free food from the government. Being removed from the list is nothing short of a disaster, as it means no billete and you go home empty-handed.
But as we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw that the woman was not to be deterred. We noticed that she still had not left, hanging around in the hope for more. And here comes the truck guy getting up in her face again.
When we unloaded our stash of canned fruit, veggies and tomato sauce onto our kitchen table, we were surprised to find two one-pound packages of frozen ground beef hidden in the bottom of the bag. We used one of them right away in spaghetti sauce with a box of pasta that we had received in a drought relief package last week (Pastor Mom kindly prepared a vegetarian batch for me).
Two days later, we brought my teenaged niece and her little one over to the bi-county food bank warehouse to sign up for a California program known as First Five. Additional food is provided to poor parents of young children in the hope of giving them a better start in life. The box she received contained some useful items such as apple juice and pasta, along with a number of inexplicable ones such as hot sauce and butterscotch chips. It makes you wonder what they think little kids eat these days.
The food we receive when I stand on these lines, sometimes for hours, not only stretches our budget, but also allows us to share with the needy who constantly show up at the door of the church parsonage. We are now at the end of the month, a time when many run out of food and out of luck. Even if you know about the county, state and federal food distributions in this area, many of the poorest in our community have no means to get to them. And even if you are eligible for Food Stamps (and too many don’t know that they are), it doesn’t help very much if there’s only a dollar and a half left on your EBT card and still a whole week left in the month.
So the elderly woman who is our next door neighbor came over and asked if we could help her with some food. We packed pasta, sauce, soup, beans and canned fruit into a grocery bag for her. Then it was Homeless Guy #3, and we made up some sandwiches for him. A few days later, it was Homeless Guy #2, claiming that neither he nor his wife (with whom he no longer resides) had anything to eat. We gave them ham, turkey and most of a loaf of bread.
Poor Homeless Guy #2. The next day, he apparently fell off the wagon, yelled some choice words at the wrong people and was picked up by the cops for public intoxication. He got out the next morning, which was fortuitous since he continues to be such a huge help with the labor necessary to repair the church.
Now he wants me to help him figure out some legal papers that he received in the mail. It seems he has a lawsuit against the state over injuries he received during his last stint in prison. I told him he can come over with his documents and we can look them over together.
It hasn’t happened yet, however. In the meantime, he was arrested on a probation violation and is currently serving ten days in the pokey.