Feeding America volunteers passing out food items to the poor.

She could not fathom how she had come to this, in a line with strangers, fall leaves a blanket on the ground beneath her feet. She was given an address to go to in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It was parking lot of a church. She could only think to put one foot in front of the other moving slowly forward.

Her destination was a rectangular metal building with a large sign announcing, “Food Bank.”  So many people! Each one with a story to tell and she could only think of her own. Was she selfish, uncaring and unfeeling?  No. She was numb; rather like pins and needles in her feet, except she couldn’t even feel those as she took advantage of this, the only option left to her.

She noticed that people knew each other, as though meeting here was a common occurrence, like leaning on a back fence to talk to your neighbor.  Conversations were mostly anxious and hopeful and centered on job searches. There were speculations about why they weren’t getting hired: not enough job experience, not enough education. What exactly bumped them out of the running, they wondered. She knew education wasn’t everything. She had a degree and still she was here, standing in line finding it hard to breathe.

The sun was shining but she felt cold as though the icy cold fingers of winter had settled into the fibers of her being, her breath woven with tiny icicles each time she exhaled. The time dragged.  It seemed the second-hand on the clock was refusing to move forward. Her thoughts drifted to another time.

Her children were in grade school. She stayed home to raise them. Her husband made a fairly good income but not enough to feed a family of seven. She took care of finances. Bills came first, then food, then clothes, not always new. But at some point, there just wasn’t enough money for basic necessities. They were, as sociologists would say, “food insecure.”  She hated the idea of asking for help but she had to think about the children. When a friend told her about a place to get staples for free, ask she did. To register for help, she had to bring proof of her husband’s income. If it wasn’t too much she could get cheese, rice, flour and dried milk for free. This could leave money for other necessities.

Later she would find out it was a Government Commodity Program that gave out these few items that were stockpiled in warehouses across the nation by the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. It began in 1933. It was called the Commodity Credit Corporation. It was created to help farmers acquire loans in exchange for crops. Out of this the USDA began storing surplus food. The idea was to keep prices down during the Great Depression. Over time the way to store food crops led to making “Government Cheese” and here she was, so many years later, standing in line to get a share for her family.

Another day. Another church. Another line. She still felt out-of-place but it was good to be there, to find a way to make her money stretch. Surely this was the answer and it did work until her husband got a small raise. She was told he made too much. Even though his income was just over the limits by a few dollars, she no longer qualified for food assistance. Who made the rules to determine who was poor and who was not? Her family would always do better than most, but she knew about money and priorities. She was fortunate. Still, it was hard.

She remembered how happy she had been to finally be able to attend college when her youngest daughter began school. She hoped this would make a difference one day but there was no crystal ball and no one to read Tarot cards. Life was a gamble and the only bet she made. She remembered one class in particular, a class on poverty. Her professor, a ministerial-type, had grabbed her attention but she wasn’t prepared for the day when he pointed out to the rest of the class that her husband was “working poor.”

She had never considered them poor. They had a house, a car, food on the table and her husband a good job. She didn’t work.  If she did all her income would go to childcare so it was pointless to try. To this day, she still feels the embarrassing sting of other students staring.

When she looked up from her memories, she found herself peering into the trailer. She was given a box full of food items that were either canned, boxed or bagged. There were no fresh items, certainly no government cheese. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” she thought. With a shrug, she took her box, put it in the car and drove home.

Once in her kitchen she unpacked the box. She found there were many items she could use and some items that were new and strang. She wondered if they were food at all. She picked up a can with a picture of a cow on the label, nothing else. She was dumbfounded, as though everything as she knew it had suddenly been tossed into a storm of kaleidoscope colors that had faded to black and white. She was looking at her first ever beef in a can. She couldn’t even imagine opening it, much less eating it. She put it in the cupboard and decided it would remain unless her choices simply ran out. When day she moved, she left the can behind, still believing that someone else would need it more than she. And yet, even after the move and passage of years, instinct told her that she would one day find her elder-self keeping company with poverty once again. And, sure enough, here she was on line at the food bank.

© 2017, short story, Renee Espriu; photo credit, Sterling Communications under CC BY 2.0 license.

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