By Jennifer Ball-Tufford
Last Halloween there was a food drive at the school where I work—boxes set up in the hallways, with cute kid-decorated signs imploring us all to SCARE HUNGER and donate nonperishables for a local agency. On any given workday, I found myself gazing into the bins more than once or twice. Why? Because I like food. It’s like porn to me. I wish I was lying. So when I walked by, naturally I peeked in at the packages.
Dang. Talk about some swanky grocery shoppers at our school. Think “fancy” stuff, as in, organic this and that, and other very appealing deviations from the standard boxes of mac and cheese and spaghetti. There was rice pasta, gluten-free crackers, olive tapenade, artichoke hearts packed in seasoned oil and quinoa. I peered at the contents of those bins like Sylvester ogled Tweety Bird.
Strolling by one day, checking out the bins, I came upon one of the women who helped organize the drive and called out, “Wow! Look at all this awesomeness!” or something similarly enlightening. She beamed at me and said, “I know! The parents at this school are amazing.” As she was speaking, another woman happened by. She smiled at us, like people who see each other several times a day in passing do, and then said this:
“Too bad they won’t know what to do with most of it.”
It was one of those moments in life when your ears hear something but your brain can’t quite process it. I was fairly certain I’d just heard her say what I thought I’d heard her say...but it didn’t really sink in. It floated there, like a film of rainbow-hued oil over a puddle in the street. I spoke up while she was still within earshot, asking, “What do you mean?” I needed an answer, to verify what she’d said and make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. The woman stopped walking and turned toward me, one hand holding a couple of manila folders, the other resting lightly on her hip. She was still smiling. “Those people won’t know what most of that stuff is. I mean, really. Quinoa?”
Yep. I’d heard correctly. Those people.
At that moment, it had been eight months since the last time I got groceries at our local food pantry. Eight months since the long-overdue child support from my ex-husband kicked in. Even though it wasn’t much, it made the difference between being able to buy enough food for the five of us and having to supplement from a food pantry. For that, I’m grateful.
I can still vividly recall my first time visiting the food pantry. I’d driven by many, many times, trying to work up the courage to pull into the parking lot. I’d whisper to myself, “Dammit. I can’t,” and keep driving, home to the barren refrigerator and the Old Mother Hubbard cupboards. Until desperation overshadowed my pride.
Once you get past the hardest part, which is walking through the door, being at the food pantry isn’t so bad. I mean, it’s not something that would inspire one to burst into song and run around high-fiving people, but as far as life experiences go, it’s not terrible. Sure, there’s the heat on your cheeks as you fill out the paperwork, giving these strangers your life history. Telling them how you got into this pickle. This predicament. Explaining what you do for money, how much you get and what you spend it on. But you get used to having hot cheeks. You become accustomed to averting your gaze so as not to make too much eye contact. You eventually become, dare I say, comfortable.
I quickly learned that food pantries are a lot like T.J. Maxx—hit or miss. Some days the shelves are full, and with really good things. Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. Organic marinara sauce. Fresh vegetables. Whole chickens in the freezer. Brie from Trader Joe’s that’s only two days past the expiration date. Other days, you have to scramble to even get near the required weight of food in your cart. (Yeah, you get a certain number of pounds of food, depending on the size of your family.) Dented cans of creamed corn. Spoiled produce that even the most resourceful broke chef couldn’t salvage. Individual sleeves of saltine crackers. But beggars can’t be choosers, right?
All in all, I visited the food pantry a total of five times over the course of 11 months, confiding in only one friend about it. When I told my kids, I expected them to laugh or get angry or be embarrassed. They didn’t do any of those things. Instead, they helped me put the groceries away, and did so quietly, not saying much other than the occasional “Yum!” or “Gross!” I can recall, on command, almost all the meals I made with food pantry goodies. Oven-roasted chicken with quartered rosemary potatoes. Turkey chili. French toast. More mac and cheese than I care to admit. One of my favorites was an organic risotto, flavored with mushrooms and olive oil.
I wanted to walk up to that woman in the hallway and smack the folders out of her hand. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her as I got up in her face and yelled at her, “You clueless, pretentious b***h! You don’t know a thing about how it feels to walk into one of ‘those’ places and be one of ‘those’ people. You’ve never had to swallow your pride and admit that you need a hand. You’ve never looked at your kids and had to hide your tears because you had no idea how you were going to feed them. You know what? Those people will be grateful to see this food. They’ll be saying silent prayers of thanks as they box that stuff up and bring it home and make it for their families. And they will never, ever forget how it felt to feel so appreciative for something as simple as food.” I wanted to say that, but I didn’t. Instead, all I could muster was:
“I like quinoa.”
To which she replied, “Well, yes, of course. You’re not one of those people.”
If only she knew.
Jennifer Ball-Tufford blogs about divorce, single motherhood and life as a fortysomething at happyhausfrau.blogspot.com. She loves her kids, Louis CK and binge-watching TV on Netflix.