Monday, November 16, 2015

Lessons from the Food Pantry

We don't have as many opportunities to volunteer as we'd like (coordinating the schedules of five people in one house with lots of activities is mind-boggling sometimes) but we try when we can to help at a food pantry on the north end of town.  I'm pleased that my kids jump at the chance to go when I can find someone to cover me at work and can arrange to volunteer.  There are lots of important lessons to be learned there.

In this season of food drives and increased interest in charity, I thought I'd take a moment to share what we've learned at the food pantry in the hopes it may help guide people in their giving.  Maybe these are things that only surprised me as I saw what items people in need selected, but maybe it's information others can use as well.

The most popular items on the shelves of the section of the food pantry I've helped with were: cooking oil, cooking spray, flour, sugar, and spices such as cinnamon and garlic powder.

These are things I have never thought to donate, and yet they are the kinds of things I make sure are stocked in my own kitchen all the time.  Why would I think someone else's kitchen would be that different?  I think it comes down to looking around more at what you can spare when you make donations, rather than for what other people actually need.  People coming to the food pantry need the same things we need.  Now I buy extra of those things so I can spare them.

Other food that went quickly at the pantry: Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbeque sauce, crackers, peanut butter, and tuna.  Mixes that only require water, and not extra items like eggs or milk are good, too.

Any sweet treats that kids would enjoy are always appreciated: Pop Tarts, cookies, gummy fruit snacks, graham crackers, cake mixes, frosting.

There is a whole section at the food pantry for toiletries, which is something I hadn't considered before.  Of course people need toilet paper and feminine hygiene products and soap and shampoo and razors, etc.  It's amazing what you take for granted in your home when money is a concern but not a crisis.

Oh, and from a friend who has spent her whole life helping in food pantries: There is too much bread in the world.  Bakers need to stop making so much bread.  We literally can't give enough of it away, and every time my kids and I leave the food pantry we end up taking a few loaves ourselves because otherwise it will be thrown out.  That seems ridiculous.

A couple of years ago we started collecting boxes of cereal at my kids' birthday parties to donate to the food pantry.  We put "Bring a box of your favorite cereal!" on all the invitations and people were happy to oblige.  My kids were concerned at first that all the cereal was sugary and wondered if they should be donating healthier items.  I told them when you are on a tight budget there isn't much chance to splurge on something fun, and that fun cereal would be greatly appreciated by kids just like them.  Given a choice, which cereal would they rather have themselves? 

I think when giving we would do best to stop and imagine what we would hope to receive if our circumstances changed in an instant (as can happen to anyone).  That sounds obvious, but it often isn't.  There are many passed over items at the food pantry that are obviously things people were tired of having on their own shelves, and they saw donation as an opportunity to "throw food out" essentially, while getting to feel virtuous about it.

My grandma saw a lot of that kind of thinking when she handled collections for the service committee in her neighborhood.  She lived in an affluent area of town that had hidden pockets of unexpected need, and there was always a ton of donated food in her basement that she would help box and distribute.  She told me they had to stop taking clothes donations because the kinds of items people thought should be passed on to the poor were too appalling: Shoes with holes, shirts with impossible stains, clothes worn beyond any real use.  Many people think the poor should be grateful for garbage.  That's shameful, and I never forgot it. 

It's the same lesson with food.  We shouldn't pass on whatever we want people to accept as "good enough" when we can afford to provide them with what we feel is "good."  It's one thing if I'm giving away peas because we no longer have a taste for peas, and another if I'm getting rid of something expired or of little use that I wouldn't feed to my own family.

The larger lessons of volunteering at the food pantry are, of course, compassion and humility, remembering to be grateful for what we have, and the importance of giving without judgement.  We're always left feeling glad to have done something, and guilty for not doing more when there is so much need.  We're never deluded into feeling we've solved something, but hope maybe we helped make someone's day better than it might have been.  That's reason enough to make the effort.


  1. Both of my girls have required community service hours for school. It started out as required, but I'm really looking forward to working the food bank with them. They will get credit, yes, but they'll also get to experience others' needs and help fill the needs in a tangible way.

    I've noticed the food bank that comes to my son's school twice a month is filled with rice and canned goods, sometimes fresh fruit and vegetables. We try to not pass things over, but at the same time we've found that some of the passed over things have already expired (like seriously expired, not just a few months).

    1. I think that's a great opportunity for your girls to be able to do that through school. My oldest signed up for volunteer time once a week after school where they bus some kids over to a senior center to assist people there, and mostly keep older people company. She loves being able to do that, and I wish more schools had programs like it.

      I try not to take too much credit for the ways in which I think my kids are great because I don't know how much influence I actually have, but I can't help but be proud of how compassionate they all are. They are always up for volunteering and never see it as a burden.