Expressing my view!

Sharing with whoever would read my thoughts

Experiencing a Food Pantry, is it for me?

I stood on the uptown platform on Christmas Eve afternoon with two food-laden blue plastic bags waiting for the #1 train to arrive. Two women I recognized as being where I had just left, came toward me, heads bent and with bags hanging from each of their hands, their blue bags encased in upscale shopping bags, hiding the fact that they had just come from one of the city’s food pantries on the Upper West Side, where they were able to get raw packaged and canned food supplies to take home to their families. A thought flashed through my mind, in these days, what is it to be ashamed of if a person has to go to a food pantry for assistance and to augment their food stocks? It is necessary to get food where ever one can, with out too much hassle or cost.

This experience may seem mundane or ordinary to some, and to others, unusual, as it undoubtedly was for me. But when I considered the recent announcement by New York Governor David Patterson that he would make available $1 million to assist food pantries in the state, then the idea of going to a food pantry didn’t seem all together too much of a issue, except it would if I put pride before my stomach.

With economic constraints around the city hitting non-profit organizations, the governor’s announcement may be welcome news to those non-profit organizations with food pantries who have seen a significant drop in donations from individuals, other organizations and corporations; some may complain it’s not enough to provide for the burgeoning number of unemployed or under paid people seeking help with basic food, and some may not be able to accept it, because they no longer have pantries. But I wonder, with hundreds of food pantries in existence and many more organizations starting them as a social response, akin to the era of soup kitchens, but with less overhead and operational commitment; how much out of the $1million would any food pantry statewide receive to effectively stave off people clamoring for help and facing empty shelves? In this experience, I realized, that whether or not a person was employed, accessing the services of a food pantry is not restricted to the unemployed, but is equally available to those whose income makes it necessary for them to find other means of supplementing their food; putting pride or social status aside in the interest of obtaining food, especially if its free.

Rewinding to about an hour and a half before I stood on the uptown subway platform, at about 12:30 pm, I had followed a suggestion from one of my friends and headed downtown to the food pantry to see if I could get help with food. Taking the #1 train from my stop at 168th Street, I disembarked from the downtown #1 train at the 86th Street and Broadway stop, walked west to the corner of West End Avenue to the church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.

I walked resolutely through the misty rain, tiny drops of water falling from an overcast sky, remnants of ice and snow littered the sidewalk. I approached the wrought iron green-painted box like enclosure with steel steps leading down to a basement under the massive concrete structure of the church where a young Latina woman was closing the gate after escorting another woman out. When I enquired about the food pantry, she replied that the pantry was closed for lunch, from noon to 1:00pm and suggested that if I wanted pantry services, I could wait inside the church. A sign connected to the wire meshing detailed the pantry’s hours of operation, Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 12:00, and 1:00pm to 3:00pm.

As I had no umbrella, and my only protection against the December cold and rain was a wool hat and a pea coat, I took the young lady’s advice and sought shelter in the church. When I entered the building through a side door, I felt as if I was suddenly transported to another place: inside the shadows seemed darker and deeper, and the silence noticeable. Where was anyone, I asked myself? Wandering around unhindered, I found myself in the church, proper; I had in fact entered into a vestibule cum office or reception area. The church seemed cavernous, its pews were aligned at a slight angle, not the traditional straight forward looking to the front set-up, but a semblance of a semi-circle, as if embracing the vacant sanctuary ahead. Above in the darker gloom of the church’s barrel vaulted ceiling, the occasional patches of white revealed where the darkened, sooth stained paint had peeled, and over the sanctuary was a large gray banner with black letters speaking to harmony existing between brothers and sisters. The yellow or gold stained glass windows that lined the walls, in three rows at differing heights, all bore similar generic patterns at each level, but which in themselves were devoid of character, except one, which showed a man kneeling before another who was seated throne like, and carried a plate below crediting the family who donated it to the church.

When the time arrived, I ventured out of the church’s warmth and protective gloom into the rain, and walked to the green painted steel steps, descended and through a door, entered into a vast hall. Pausing mid stride, I looked around, oriented myself, my senses attuned, observing, analyzing and processing this new experience. At a table in front of an opening which led to an office, a woman stood there as if guarding the objects on the table, which were a sheet that clients sign and a stack of clip boards with application forms with bank styled chain-attached pens affixed to the metallic clasp. I asked the woman, who struggled to speak and be understood in English, what to do as a first timer to the pantry. She pointed to a sheet of paper, said I had to sign in and then handed me an application on a clip board. The application itself asked questions which included, race, social security number, date of birth, income, employment status, and so on. I thought, the only thing missing from this application is a box to tick off that I was willing to provide a specimen for DNA and that with the social security number and date of birth, as well as name, address and phone number, I may as well be giving away my identity for the sake of food.

After I’d completed the application, writing on the social security line a bold N/A, not applicable, I waited for a short moment and was invited by another Latina woman to sit in a chair in front of a desk, where she proceeded to conduct an interview. Before she began, I was asked to sign my name on another sheet of paper, which she explained was to log the clients seen by a counselor. I never knew what was the purpose of signing my name on the first sheet of paper, perhaps that was also a log to count the number of people who had entered the pantry, and perhaps the two log signings was to see if there were any discrepancies, between the clients who had come to the pantry and those who had actually entered the pantry.

The counselor mentioned that the information on the application was not shared with anyone, but was used by the organization for statistical purposes, to determine the number of clients, and to assist with coordinating the food supply. What became apparent by the end of the interview, was that the counselor simply wanted to verify that the person sitting before her was the same person who filled out the application for assistance. Not once during the interview did she look at the form, but asked questions that were already asked and answered on the form, boxes ticked off and lines written on, such as what was my apartment number, my date of birth and if I had completed college and possessed a four-year degree. Then she asked if I had medical insurance and if not, would I be interested in a hospital offering low rates, at which suggestion I added that I didn’t want another bill. But thought to myself, who was she kidding? A low cost hospital in New York City? I wondered what this organization was getting in return for the hospital referrals.

When she was finished with the interview, she reached over to a side of her desk and selected a plastic badge holder with a blue sheet of paper on which was printed a shopping list, of sorts, where instead of prices, there were points alongside the items. As briefly as possible, the Latina counselor explained what little she knew of the pantry’s food points system, as in what form are the vegetables, canned or loose, and what quantity constitutes how many points, questions she couldn’t answer, but referred me to one of the attendants in the pantry, and told me that I was only able access the pantry’s services once a month. It also occurred to me that there were different color lists for families of different sizes; one woman had a yellow paper list, which allowed her to collect food for her and her family of three, and another had a green papered badge, which allowed her different food allotments.

The actual pantry was a study in independence. This was a pantry unlike others with which I was familiar, where you are handed a plastic shopping bag with food the distributing organization thinks you should have. Here, clients entered a large room containing metallic shelves laden with packaged and canned food, a loose vegetable area, and two large upright glass sliding door cooler, one containing dairy products and the other with various types of meat. On one side of the pantry were glass panels, where anyone in the pantry area could clearly be seen and monitored by the staff from the outside. Based on the plastic badge colored paper shopping list, a client selected what he or she wanted from the shelves.

Being a novice to this experience, one of the pantry’s attendants accompanied and assisted me in choosing items from the list that were on the shelves. When he saw I had understood the system, he left me to continue selecting, but hovered behind me to ensure I had really got the hang of the pantry. Because I was a single man, my shopping list was blue, only allowing food for one person. According to the list, I could only get three cans or three pounds vegetables worth three points; two one pint bags of rice and a box or oats, worth three points; dairy, meat, and fruit, one point each. I was allowed to have pasta, but on a shelf was a single box of spaghetti, which I reached for, but quickly retracted my hand. The box had been opened. The attendant assured me that it was okay, but when he saw my hesitation, he said I didn’t have to take it and that the staff would put the box of opened spaghetti in a plastic bag, tie the top, and place it back on the shelf where someone else would take it. I looked at him in horror, thanked him for his help and turned away.

While I was selecting food items from the shelves, I checked the ingredients of many of the canned foods for mono sodium glutamate, MSG, or other types of preservatives. I was determined to scrutinize each can to ensure that, not because I was getting free food, I had to have unhealthy food. I looked at one can of tomato sauce and noticed that there was a supermarket price label on it. It occurred to me that for many food pantries around the city, when they have reached below their established threshold level of food, donated, they actually go out and buy food from supermarkets to augment their stocks.

When I had completed my selections, I arrived at a long aluminum covered table where two women, dressed in aprons, performed a simulated supermarket check-out, except there was no cash register, moving conveyer belt or card scanner. The older woman who had given me the application at the beginning was there to check me out, looking through my blue bag to ensure that I had taken my blue shopping list allotment, nothing more or less. Noticing that I was new and unfamiliar to the pantry and since it was Christmas Eve, she offered me two additional cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a box of assorted herbal teas. My foray into the world of food pantries and donated food complete, I left the pantry, climbed the green metal stairs to the street and headed across Broadway to the subway entrance and to wait for the train on the uptown platform.

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January 5, 2009 - Posted by | African-American News, Black Men, Blogroll, community, Economy, Food Pantry, Free Food, Washington Heights Community | , ,

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