Tag Archives: poor

The Smile

This morning in a paved courtyard at a church acting as part of local food bank network, people of all ages were seated on benches, steps, and planters scattered about the edges. They talked quietly with one another while a small band of 3 musicians played live music in one corner. Having danced for as long as I have, I can often spot fellow dancers in any situation with live music. Sure enough, the elderly man who always sits on the same bench every week with a frown on his face and a WWII veteran’s ball-cap on his head gave the telltale signs of a dancer listening to the rhythm. I walked over.

“Do you dance?”

“What’s that?” he said, sounding grumpy.

“I said, do you dance?”

“Yes, what of it?” he asked defensively.

“Would you like to dance with me?”

“No,” he said, quite firmly. I nodded and walked away.

I spotted another probable dancer in the crowd, and went to ask for a dance. This time I got an enthusiastic yes. I hoped that watching us dance would change the veteran’s mind about dancing. I wanted to give a smile to that frowning face.

For the dancers reading this, this dance was one of those dances where the first 20-30 seconds is spent finding a way to match rhythms and differing skill sets. It would have happened much quicker if I had let go of my preconceived direction for the dance sooner. Our connection was mediocre. We had a lot of fun, but dancing together a few more times would probably turn our connection into something much smoother.

The crowd cheered. We traded off leading and following. Every time one of us spun the other, there was laughter. Whenever I took the lead, I could hear folks mentioning it to each other. My partner was having a blast, and so was I. Our dance finally began to respond to the music. A grin slowly spread across my face and stayed there. When the music stopped, we hugged and went our separate ways, as it was time to line up to get our numbers. Each person I passed looked at me with smiling eyes and said that had been a lovely dance to watch. I thanked them each. I was trying to give one elderly person a smile, but instead my partner and I gave smiles to an entire crowd. I was not expecting that with my rusty dance skills.

After I got my number, I wandered across the courtyard to where the veteran was sitting. His friends had arrived and were talking with him.

“You don’t dance all that great,” he said, teasing. We all laughed. “I could show you a thing or two,” he said.

“Show me!” I said, pointing towards the open space in front of the band. “I’d love to learn. Dance with me?”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise and he turned me down again, but this time he was smiling. Mission accomplished.

An Amazing Food Bank Day

Food Bank Food

Saturday morning, I woke with the sun in my eyes, just rising over the hills outside my window. Excitedly, I hurried to dress and fetch my reusable bags. Today was the day I would finally get good food to eat. Food that would not be rotting. Food I would enjoy eating.

I drove across town to the church where the distribution would be. It doesn’t start until 9am, but some folks had already been there for two hours when I got there at 8. I placed my bags on the ground behind the line of bags of those before me, and dashed into the bathroom. Before I got back, they started handing out numbers, so I lost my spot, but I was still #437, and they started that day with #413, so there really weren’t many people ahead of me.

I walked through the courtyard in search of a patch of warm, direct sun. People, mostly 40+ (and probably half of them were 65+) intermingled, laughed together, and partook of free coffee and pastries provided by the church program. That atmosphere was so much more pleasant than the one of the Wednesday morning location – despite a large degree of crossover in the user group – that it struck me once more as being a beautiful bit of social engineering.

When my number was called, I took my place in the food line. I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet, a little “1” for number of people in my household, and “0” for number of children. Every time I do that I pat myself on the back for good choices. Some folks make poverty and children work out okay, but it’s not a thing I desire for myself.

I looked up from the table to see a line of food tables down the middle of the church gymnasium. Each one was piled with food, with volunteers standing on one side to control portions and to help stack more food on the tables as they emptied. A line of hungry people stretched through the gym on the other side of the tables, slowly trickling along.

The first table I came to had two coolers so big I could probably fit inside them – and I am rather tall. Each was filled with packages of raw meat, most of it from Trader Joe’s. As I was only one person, I was limited to one small package, but I got to choose which one I wanted, and that is part of what makes all the difference about this location. I am treated like a person there. Folks address me by name, and ask about my life, and assume that because I am a human, I will have my own tastes and preferences in food, and that this is normal and to be respected. They even refer to the process of going through the line for food as “shopping.” The fundamental ability to choose is really far more humanizing than a lot of people understand, I think.

After meat was the dairy table. Beyond that they had an entire table dedicated to the specialty grab-and-go sort of things that expired that week at grocery stores, but were still good to eat. Sometimes they have sushi. Prepared salads are the most common. After that was the one table in the whole row that has nonperishable food. We are usually given our choice of one small bag of one type of grain, and our choice of one can. It totally destroyed my image of what poor people get from programs like these.

The next three tables were covered in fresh fruits and vegetables. Whatever is in surplus from local farms, or about to expire in local grocery markets, is what we get to eat. This place (unlike the Wednesday place) never gives us rotten vegetables with the expectation that we should be happy we are getting anything at all. Vegetables at Saturday’s location may look a little droopy sometimes, but when that happens the workers all look apologetic, which I find adorable and heartening. Again, this place is humanizing in ways all the others could take a lesson from.

The last table was covered in dessert items. Cookies, pies, cupcakes, even sheet cakes sometimes, and more! The last thing after the tables was bread. There was a set of wheeled shelves that has the freshest bread, and each household got their choice of one loaf from that, but there was a row of boxes along the far wall with the rest of the surplus bread. We are usually asked to take as much as we want from those boxes, lest the surplus be thrown away. The only exception is when there is less bread than usual and/or more hungry people than usual.

When I got home, I took the above photo of the food I had chosen. I will eat very well this week. (In fact, I already have.) Not only that, but the way this place runs their program has boosted my mental health by giving my self esteem a dose of validity, and that is just as valuable to my success in life as is the nutritious blueberries and pork chops. Indeed, it is more likely to boost me towards a life where I don’t need their services than the food itself.

A Typical Food Bank Day

Today was the first time I have managed to get to a food bank distribution location in over two weeks. My supply of vegetables was almost completely gone when I got in line this morning, and any bread that was left got thrown in the trash with its colorful mold right before I left the house.

Standing in line at a local church, I watched as a handful of volunteers packed paper bags with identical proportions of perfect kale leaves, damp potatoes, questionable onions, beautiful carrots, and fresh broccoli. On top of the vegetables, they added small boxes of tiny tomatoes and yogurt. A plastic bag full of various breads was tossed on top of each.

When it was my turn, I walked into the room that served as an office, and wrote my name and address on the sign-in sheet. I wrote a small “1” in the column for number of people in my household. The person working the desk handed me a card that said “1” and gestured at a nearby table with a pile of garlic french bread.

“You can take one of those if you like.”

“Thanks, but I am allergic to those.”

The worker directed me to a stash on the windowsill of the precious few loaves designed for folks with allergies. I took the one with the most variation in grains. When you live on food bank food, you never know when you’ll be lucky enough to get a balanced diet. Variety is important for staying healthy. Staying healthy is important for doing well in school. Doing well in school is important for breaking out of the cycle and making a life that will one day allow me to buy my own food.

I walked back out of the room and handed my card to the attendant before waiting on the painted line. I mentioned that I have food allergies, and would need to go through the food and give back what I can’t eat. I know I have friends I could give it to, but that just feels wrong when there is a whole line of hungry people behind me.

The attendant told the volunteers that I needed 1 bag of food, and a place to go through it. A volunteer took me to a nearby patch of sidewalk and set the paper bag with its plastic bag crown on the ground in the sun. I mentally thanked my body for its silence as far as my old sports injuries are concerned. Some days, I would not be able to sort food on the ground. Today was not one of those days.

I soon handed the plastic bag back to the volunteer, as nothing in it was edible for me. The yogurt went back, too, as did the tomatoes. I put the vegetables that did not look like they were beginning to rot into my shoulder bag, and handed the rest back in the paper bag.

When I got to my car, I texted my friend what I had gotten today.

“Cashew milk, brown rice bread, onions, cabbages, tiny potatoes, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower.”

“Yum!”

“Yep!”  I replied. “All two food groups are delicious.”

A part of me feels like I shouldn’t complain. After all, I get enough food to not feel hungry most of the time. I don’t, however, get a balanced diet. I don’t get what I need to be healthy. I think that’s worth complaining about.