The first thing you learn when you rely on the food bank to feed your family is that you can't rely on the food bank to feed your family. Not entirely, anyway. The truth is, many families struggle with hunger despite regular visits to their local food pantry.
According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.8 percent of Americans are food insecure. I've experienced this first hand. I was a food bank customer myself — a single working mother whose paychecks barely covered rent, daycare, utilities and gas, let alone food.
My local food pantry was in the basement of a church. There was a wide parking lot to the side, but I always parked my car around the corner, where'd I'd be less likely to be spotted. I was already ashamed to be seen chugging along in a car with a smoking tailpipe and paying for fuel with stacks of change at the gas station. I couldn't bear to have anyone know that I couldn't afford to feed my son.
The volunteers at the food bank were silver-haired and kind. On my first visit, I was fresh from my receptionist job, sharply dressed in a skirt suit handed down from my mother. I was worried I wouldn't look needy enough, so I'd tucked my pay stubs into my purse just in case. It wasn't necessary. I told the volunteers I needed help and they believed me. I didn't need to prove I was hungry. It was a time in my life when I rarely received respect from anyone, but I received it from them. Dignity was the first gift they gave me.
A woman asked for my family size. I told her it was just me and my son and she wrote the information on an index card and tucked it away into a plastic box full of other cards. I thought about how each one of those index cards represented a person who had to walk through that door and ask for help like I did. These were real people with lives, stories and families, shrunk so small they fit inside a box the size of a human hand. It was fitting. I felt small. Poverty had shrunk me.
A man handed me a cardboard box with a dozen eggs, pancake mix, powdered milk, rice, macaroni, peanut butter and assorted canned goods. I was grateful and disappointed at the same time. Truth was, I'd expected a bigger box. The food pantry was only open one day a month, so I'd naively assumed I'd receive enough food to carry us 30 days. The box he handed me would last about a week if I were careful. I still needed to find a way to feed my son.
I trolled the grocery aisles for markdowns. I skipped meals, bounced checks and stole nickels and dimes from my son's piggy bank. I borrowed money from my mother and didn't pay it back. I'm not proud of any of it, but I did what I had to do. Not once did my child go hungry.
Not everyone is as lucky.
Nina McCollum, 50, in Cleveland, is a low-income mother struggling to feed her 10-year-old son. Her nearest food pantry is open one day a month and they usually provide her with two bags of groceries. The bulk of it is canned goods.
She fills in the gaps with SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), but even that isn't enough to make it through the month, so she visits the other food pantries in her area. It isn't easy. Says McCollum, "I generally visit one pantry a week. But with the three-plus hours it takes to visit many of them, it's a huge time commitment. And as someone with a bad back, with many pantries requiring you to wait outside in the elements, I have sat on the snowy or rainy ground more than once to sit and wait for food."
Food pantry visits and SNAP benefits provide McCollum and her son with roughly 70 percent of the food she needs each month. Still, she struggles to pay for necessities that aren't covered by any of these programs. Items like toilet paper, napkins, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, menstrual products and laundry soap. Scarcity has made these items so precious that McCollum once watched two women fight at a food pantry over a single box of donated laundry detergent. This is why McCollum waits in line outside an hour or two before the pantries open. If she doesn't, she worries she'll miss out on the best donations.
It is important to note that the time McCollum dedicates to gathering these provisions is only possible because she works flexible hours as a freelance writer. For many people, especially the disabled and working poor, time-consuming visits to multiple locations are impossible.
Marelle Habenicht, is the executive director of the White Center Food Bank in Seattle. The organization recently switched to a grocery store model that allows customers to make their own decisions and select which foods they need. Each family is allowed three visits a month. Even so, it remains only a supplementary resource. Like Nina McCollum, White Center Food Bank customers still have to source the majority of their food elsewhere.
The White Center Food Bank helps qualified families enroll in SNAP benefits and also provides $5 produce certificates that can be used at local grocers, many of which offer matching funds. Families unable to fill their cupboards despite this extra assistance also have access to one emergency bag a month.
Habenicht says cash donations would help the White Center Food Bank provide more food for its customers. The organization stretches its dollars by working in partnership with local vendors to purchase in bulk. Additionally, monetary gifts allow the White Center Food Bank to support other programs, such as a large community garden that provides customers with much-needed fresh produce.
According to Habenicht, it would also help if people were more conscientious about the food they donate. Some donations, unfortunately, end up costing the organization money — funds that could otherwise be used to feed its customers. "We often get large donations from folks who are obviously cleaning out their pantries," she says. "While we appreciate all donation efforts, we encourage people to only donate what they themselves would feed their families ... Large donations of canned foods that are five-plus years past their expiration dates, sadly, are not helpful, and actually cost us quite a bit of money to dispose of. We also get lots of open packages, which we cannot distribute, as well as packaged foods with no labels."
Nina McCollum echoes this thought. "I ask people who donate to donate items they would give to their own families to eat," she says, adding, "Poor people want to feed their families healthy food, too." As a mother who once relied on a food bank to feed my own son, I couldn't agree more.
In the end, it comes down to awareness.
Says Habenicht, "I wish the public better understood that most folks who visit the food bank are working families who simply can't make ends meet with the rising cost of living ... Not only do families have to choose between paying bills or buying food, they often have to decide who, in the family, gets to eat. These are impossible choices that no family should have to make."
Food banks and pantries rely on donations. Without them, it's likely people in your community will go hungry.
According to Feeding America, a national network of food banks, 1 in 7 Americans relies on a local food bank to eat. This number could well include someone you know.
Hungry people are everywhere: You can't necessarily tell who they are at a glance. They work with you and live in your neighborhood. They're members of your church and family. They might even be standing in front of you like I was, sharply dressed in their mother's hand-me-down suit, asking their community for a little help.
Tamara Gane is a freelance writer in Seattle who covers food, poverty, and parenting. In addition to NPR's The Salt, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Independent, HuffPost, Healthline and more.