The food line in front of the church on the other side of town extends from one end of the parking lot to the other. This is the monthly food distribution in our small locality, a combined effort of the regional food bank and a state grant to the county. You have to be signed up in advance to get food, a process that includes income and residence verification. Yet every month, some people come join the party even though they’re not signed up. Not only do these folks hold up the line for everyone else, but they provide a distinct element of drama when they begin yelling, crying or otherwise throwing tantrums. We all get to hear about their disabilities, their children, their lack of transportation. The workers try to do the best they can to accommodate their needs. You don’t have a car to get to the food bank? Sure, we’ll come to your house with the paperwork for you to fill out. Be sure to have a copy of your Social Security check, rent receipts and recent utility bills. No, we can’t give you any food until you complete the paperwork. They’re coming to audit us this month and we’ll lose our grant. That’s when the wailing usually begins. “What am I going to feed my kids tonight?” A worker hands her some bananas and a loaf of bread. Everyone else online fidgets and rolls their eyes. Why can’t they get their act together like the rest of us?
You can plan on waiting in line in the hot sun for an hour and a half to four hours, depending on how early you arrive and how many people show up. Get there too late and you’ll be summarily told “Sorry, we’re all done for today.”
We try to occupy ourselves while we wait. One woman repeatedly scolds her three little kids in Spanish. The young couple in line in front of me take selfies with their phones. The woman directly behind me sits in her wheelchair and sets up a large blue umbrella as a parasol against the sun that beats down on all of us. “I can’t be out in the sun with the medication I’m taking,” she explains when I praise her ingenuity. Neither can I, I think silently. Note to self: Buy parasol.
With my water bottle beside me, I sit in my metal folding chair, borrowed from the church fellowship hall. When the line moves, I stand up and move the chair an inch forward along the sidewalk to avoid the wrath of the impatient lady in the wheelchair behind me. I think she wants to poke me with her parasol. When we run out of sidewalk and dump out into the parking lot near the food bank’s truck, I fold up the chair and text my wife to come get it and return it to the car. There are still five people ahead of me, however, including two who haven’t signed up and are making a scene. I can barely stand on my feet, so as soon as I get near the truck, I lean against it and then sit on the bumper. This is a no-no, but it’s either that or fall down. My poor wife, who has been dying to use the rest room for some time, has walked to a nearby barber shop to borrow their facilities. As the bags and boxes of food are handed down to me from the truck, I set them on the ground where I can keep an eye on them until my wife gets back and can help me transport them to the car. I know from past experience that if I take one load to the car, the rest of the food will be gone upon my return. No one will know what happened to it, and it will be my fault, sorry.
Later, I will tell my little grandniece about my adventures on the food line. She stares intently into my eyes as if she understands what I am saying. She will be two years old next month.
We carry the packages in from the car and cover the kitchen table and counters with boxes and cans as we start to break down the government’s largesse. Some of it will go to my niece to help with the little one — juice boxes, raisins, whatever meat and fruit she thinks her daughter will eat. The rest of the meat and baked goods go in the freezer. Cans and boxes are divided into what we will use and what we will give to others. Our stuff goes on the open shelves in the kitchen, the rest of it into the “give-away box” in one of the cabinets. This way, when folks come to the door of the parsonage needing more than a sandwich and a drink, we are all ready to make up a bag of food for them. We always make up a bag for the elderly woman who lives on the other side of the fence.
There are always a few items that we still have to buy at the store. Fresh bread, milk for my grandniece, tofu and hummus and other vegan stuff for me. Almond milk. Ice cream if we’re feeling lavish. We try to wait for when things are on sale, adjusting our purchases accordingly. We try to always have extra lunch meat and bread on hand to make sandwiches for the homeless.
The Food Stamp money on our EBT card never lasts until the end of the month, but we do what we can to make up the difference. I might get a $100 check for some freelance writing assignments. My wife will get a few bucks for babysitting. Pastor Mom is on a fixed income but is always kicking in extra money.
With the help of family and God, we’re making it.