Montana Jones

Montana n: A state of the northwest United States bordering on Canada. Admitted as the 41st state in 1889. The fourth largest state in the union, it includes vast prairies and numerous majestic mountain ranges.
Syn: Treasure State, Big Sky Country, Last Best Place.

Jones n: slang. An addiction or very deep craving.

Friday, November 16, 2007

There are no vegetarians at the food bank

I have been going to the food bank for four or five weeks now. Not because I need food, I am giving them some time. A couple hours a week I do volunteer work there. I do what they call "boxing", taking a shopping list from a person or family in need, prowling around the pantry shelves and putting food into a box for them.

Several things have happened before I ever interact with these people. First and probably most critically they have admitted to themselves or their families that they need help, then they swallowed their pride and went to the food bank to ask for it. There are people that find pride much too bitter of a meal to swallow and they go hungry instead. Those that make it to the food bank get a short interview and then fill out a list of what they need. The list is just a little form where they say how many are in their family and then they circle things on a list like mac & cheese, fruit, veggies, ramen noodles, soup and so on. I take that list and pick things off the shelf for them.

The form they fill out has a spot to indicate dietary restrictions, diabetic needs or vegetarians. I think it is a little odd that vegetarian is even on there. The pantry does have a little corner in the back where we stash some sugar free stuff for the diabetics, but there are no vegetarians at the food bank.

The food bank has no well dressed people. There are no nice cars parked out front. No SUV's in the parking lot. The waiting room is not decorated with tasteful furniture and framed artwork. No one has an iPod. No one gossips about their new plasma teeve. No one has new clothes. There are no activists reminding us to buy locally and eat organic. No one is picky about their coffee. No one ever says "life is too short to drink cheap beer." Pride is in short supply at the food bank. So is confidence. Hope is still there, but for some the food bank is their last.

The idea behind helping families at the food bank is to provide enough food to get through about two or three days; long enough to get to the next paycheck or cut enough slack so they can pay the rent. I follow a list while boxing that tells me how much food to give to various size families. An individual will get one can of soup and one package of ramen and so on. A family of four will get two or three servings of everything and larger quantities. When we have fresh milk, it is usually reserved for families with children.

The stuff on the pantry shelves is a pretty eclectic assortment. The food drives bring in a big variety of stuff for us to give out. Everything from cheap assed cans of generic chili to super expensive gourmet cheeses. It is not unusual to find fresh fruit and veggies there. There are people with apple trees and cherry trees in their yards that will give most of their little harvest to the food bank. Supermarkets will give up bags of salad and produce that is reaching its expiration date. We have instructions to give out the perishable stuff before we give out the canned goods. Sometimes this selection gets a little weird. Big bags of green onions, fresh basil and artichokes.

I take someone's shopping list, follow the rules for how much to give them, prioritize the perishables and make up a box of food. It makes me feel a little sad when I look at this box and realize it has Gouda cheese, artichokes, lima beans, a package of hot dogs, and fruit cocktail. This is supposed to make meals for someone for three days? I am reasonably educated, I have good cooking skills, I have a well equipped kitchen and I have access to recipe searches on the internet. And I would be hard pressed to make a decent meal out of these things. Some of the people getting these boxes don't have cooking skills, or recipes or enough education to gain them. Some of these people only have one pot on a hot plate to cook with. I wonder how many of those artichokes I give out end up in the trash. Or if someone is just desperate enough to eat them raw. How many people eat lima beans right out of the can? Whenever I can I try to fill the box with things that can make a meal. Matching tomato sauce with the spaghetti or slipping someone some taco shells when we have ground beef. Sometimes you can't though. Sometimes all there is to give is lima beans and Gouda cheese.

The food drives help, but they never bring in enough food. The food bank buys most of the food they give out. Manufacturers and wholesalers sell things like mac & cheese or ramen noodles or peanut butter to them in bulk and at a discount. These are staples at the food bank. There is never enough money to buy all the food they need. My pantry shelves are always missing something. Mac & Cheese ran out last week. The week before we had no canned tomatoes. There is always something on someone's list that we can't put in the box.

This brings me to a point, of course. Matt at Left in the West and Craig at MT Politics have initiated the second annual Montana Blogger charity drive for the Montana Food Bank Network. The donation page is here.

Last year Montana Bloggers came up with $1,600 dollars to donate to this group. $1,600 can buy a lot of ramen noodles. The goal this year is to match that, but I think we could do better this year. The Montana blogosphere is a year older, a little wiser, a little bigger. A lot of us got the ball rolling by pitching in a few dollars a year ago; I bet we can do a better job of promoting or shaming more people into making donations this year.

In the past month I watched a young ladies eyes twinkle as I slipped a cake mix into her box. A heavyset man in a sharp clean windbreaker could only look at the floor when he came up for his box. A strong but scruffy man looked me in the eye and said "Thank you, God bless you" as he took his box. We cooed over an adorable baby named Angel while her mother came into the back to pick some formula off the baby food shelf. I presented two heavy boxes to the mother of six children and watched as half the waiting room jumped to their feet to help her carry them out to her car. I filled an order that someone made out for her neighbor. A single father raising four children and not ready to admit that he was having trouble making it to the end of the month. An old lady and her friend came in and got a small box that I learned was to be her 90th birthday dinner.

Everyone at the food bank looks a little different walking out than they did when they walked in. On the way out they carry themselves a little straighter, a little more confident, a little more hope. They step out with dignity because they have a way to feed their children and a way to make it through another day or two in a hard life. Every time I have been to the food bank I hear something I never hear at the fast food drive through. Every single person that has taken my boxes said "thank you" with complete and deep sincerity.

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Wow. Nice post.
Thank you. I have been in need at times and have been to a food bank. It was a big blessing to me. I appreciate people volunteering there. I am now able to buy as much food as I need. I have two good jobs. God bless you for your efforts and for raising awareness.
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