I volunteer Tuesday nights at our local food pantry. I started doing it after the 2016 election as I struggled with my shock and dismay at how angry and volatile our country has become, and as I tried to figure out what I could do to help bring gentleness and compassion back to our society. After the election, as I talked to friends about what I could do to try to alleviate my concerns about the divisiveness tearing our country apart, people kept telling me that I needed to act locally and that’s when I decided to become a volunteer at The Open Cupboard Food Pantry.
I love everything about food. I love eating food, I love feeding people food, I feel that food is life and by working at the pantry, I feel that I’m able to help people with this most basic need, by providing them with healthy food for their families. The food pantry in our town provides everything a family needs to feed a household: canned goods, baked goods, fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, cheeses, eggs and milk are all available each week.
Our food pantry is eminently well run by a 70+ year old strong willed, passionate woman who runs the organization as if it were her own personal business. She is amazing and has kept the place serving our community for decades.
We live in a middle class suburb and when I started at the pantry, I wasn’t sure who the clients would be. Who, in our community, needed to get their food from a food pantry? I’ve become so protected in my world, that I missed these people in my daily life, missed seeing them right in my own community.
There are primarily four groups of clients: elderly people on a fixed income with what appear to be chronic health issues; younger people with learning disabilities; individuals undergoing situations like an unexpected health crisis or a job loss who rotate in and then out as their situation improves; and immigrant families.
I’ve lived in this town for over 20 years and I had no idea that we had so many people in need in this town. The experience has been enlightening and humbling; I’m annoyed at myself for not realizing how difficult it is for so many people and how broken our society is.
When I was younger, and my parents disowned me, I was broke all the time. I had three jobs running at any given moment and always lived in a house with at least 2, and often 4 or 5 other roommates in order to make ends meet, so I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and to wonder how I’m going to pay the bills.
The people I see in the food pantry are older and established yet are still struggling. These are elderly people with chronic illnesses who often have no car and can’t buy food with their meager social security payments; people with families to support, trying to live on minimum wage jobs in a town where rents are over $1,000 a month for a one bedroom apartment; people who’ve lost their jobs due to disability or a sudden emergency, who rely on a food pantry for their weekly meals. I have no idea how they manage and I’m angry at myself for living so long in this community with blinders on, not seeing the poverty right around me.
There are many Spanish speaking guests and we have a list of the food translated into Spanish, but some weeks even that won’t do. One evening recently we had a new client; a young woman with a toddler and a chubby cheeked infant in a stroller, who didn’t speak any English.
None of us at the food pantry that night spoke Spanish and we were struggling to figure out how to explain to this young mother how the pantry worked. I thought back to a recent European trip I had made and pulled out my iPhone and brought up the Google translate app I’d used during that trip to type in the names of the various foods we had in the pantry so that I could show her in Spanish what types of foods we had to offer that week.
Last week we had a young family of three, a father, mother and a young teenage boy. The mother was slim with brown hair, the father was lean and wiry. The young boy was dark haired and thin, he seemed embarrassed that his parents didn’t always understand what we were trying to explain to them. I wondered how he will do in school when he enters it in September with his limited knowledge of the English language.
They didn’t speak any English at all and we couldn’t figure out what language they were using. I asked the 13 year old son, who seemed to have a modest understanding of English, what language they spoke and he told me that they spoke Albanian.
Aha. I spent the next 45 minutes googling “How do you translate (insert food group here) into Albanian?” and we also brought up samples of the various foods until we finally managed to help them put together their food order.
Both of these families were so very grateful for the food, the app worked just beautifully and when they recognized the words I would type in, they seemed so relieved and happy. You have to wonder what they encountered in their own country that was so bad that they would come here with nothing, not even a basic understanding of the language, to start a new life? No parent would do that to their child if they didn’t believe that it was safer to come to a completely new place with nothing, than to stay where they were.
There were four of us working that night and afterwards we all talked about how our immigrant grandparents came here many years ago through Ellis Island, with no language skills, no jobs, just a network of their respective ethnic group to help and guide them in this land of opportunity. My father’s mother spoke German and almost no English but came here at the age of 13 with a group of German families to live in the Pennsylvania Dutch part of Pennsylvania.
How is it that we’ve become so afraid of people from other countries who come here looking for a better way of life? What are we all so afraid of? Why is this country so consumed with the notion that there isn’t enough for all – that there is a finite amount of resources that can’t be shared because if we give to someone else, there won’t be enough for us. I’ve always lived with the concept that there is enough for everyone, all of us can benefit from the wealth of this country. When we share the wealth of this country and raise people up, they will then in turn benefit the rest of us as we all contribute to the success. This isn’t socialism, this is basic human kindness.
If you live in Hunterdon County and would like to contribute to The Open Cupboard, please click on the link here for ideas on how you can help.