10:25:19 Working at the Food Pantry

For the last few months, I've been volunteering at a food pantry in Multnomah County. The food pantry, physically the size of an old neighborhood grocery store, brings together food donations from the Oregon Food Bank, local supermarkets, food distributors with those living in food poverty.

food groups

Once our "shoppers" come through the front doors, they're interviewed for eligibility: household size and income. Then, unlike food pantries elsewhere, and especially in the past, we don't hand out a box of food.

Instead, each shopper gets a shopping list with an allocation of foods based on U.S. government groups for a healthier diet. Yes, people can walk out with a cake-type treat, but not three cakes, and skip the fruits and veggies. The food groups, with an allocation of points to be spent on each makes for a rather involved treasure hunt (for example, in recent weeks few would pass on the two-pound bag of pistachios in the shell for a mere 1 point protein).

One of my duties, acting as a "personal shopper," is making sure people get the most of their points for their allocated "shopping list." I see that, for their protein points, people get all the meat, eggs, nuts, and beans to which they're entitled.

Moreover, one of the beauties of a shopping list allocation is the focus on "process." People make food choices and interact with pantry staff, like myself, because of the list, not because they're needy. The indirection of focussing on the list, the process, helps respect people's dignity, our paramount goal.

While anybody can find themselves in food poverty, many shoppers are admittedly immigrants. Quite a few from East Bloc countries, but also Vietnamese, Spanish, and Somalis. I think, however, it's more than starting over. The truth is most are paying too much in rent from their limited finances. Portland has become awfully expensive recently, catching up with other major West Coast cities, after historically being quite affordable.

Working at the pantry can be quite physical work. Ripping open boxes you pull off overhead shelves, and restocking shelves is not the easiest of work. Despite the waiting in line, our shoppers and pantry staff seem to share a bonhomie.

It might be an attitude: A temporary volunteer at the pantry was doing community service instead of jail time. He helped a woman and she thanked him. He told me afterward she'd thanked him for being strong, and then he said, "What's the point of being strong if you can't help someone."

Image credit: nytimes.com


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