I Went to a Food Shelf, and I Wasn’t Volunteering

When I was in high school, we did a service project at a church and prepared a Thanksgiving dinner bag for families in need. We worked behind the scenes, never meeting the families we were helping, but simply putting food items in the big bags laid out on the pews for the families to take that night, after we left.

Today, however, I went to a food shelf because I needed food. A friend offered to drive me and insisted that it was a good option for me. We got to the church and I saw multiple volunteers running around. I wasn’t sure how to present myself, should I sound like the liberal-arts-educated person I am, or should I sound vulnerable and weak, someone who needed help? I walked into the front room where my friend directed me to a table with new client forms. I filled out the form, and found that with my income, I legally qualified for the food assistance program.

This was a little shocking. As a special ed paraprofessional at a middle school, I knew I made more money than many people, but not as much as a lead teacher at the school. The only reason I have a car is because my parents pay for it, and I live in a cheap living situation. Even still, I have options and resources at my disposal. I had to spend $700 to repair something on the car, and my parents asked me if I needed help paying my bills. Most people don’t have that option. I felt bad for being at the food shelf because I knew that others needed this food more than I did, like a single mother who works at McDonalds, or a multi-generation family of ten people living together. I’m just one person with a roommate. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be close enough to the poverty line to qualify for utilizing the food shelf.

But, I felt a little more like I belonged there and I wasn’t robbing poorer people of their free food, but it still hung in the back of my mind. After getting the forms turned in, I got a number and waited until it was my turn to go to the pantry, which was in the church basement. Once down there, an older gentleman with a big smile greeted me. “Hey! How are you? God bless! Are you knew here?”

“Yes,” I said softly.

“Oh here, we’ll help you out! Katrina! Katrina, can you come help this young lady fill her boxes?” A girl who looked about my age came to his side with a shopping cart with two boxes on it. She also had a huge smile.

“Hi there! You’re allowed to take 30 pounds of food!” she said with contagious excitement. I laughed, and immediately regretted it. I was supposed to be down on my luck and sad that I had to get donated food for myself. Isn’t that how people feel who actually depend on this program for their meals?

Katrina pushed my cart along the pantry and held up each food item. If I nodded, she put it in my box, otherwise she put it back. Their niceness was almost insulting. I didn’t need someone to push my cart for me and show me everything! And I didn’t need everyone to smile at me and be overly jolly. And was I still supposed to mope? It all felt like a blur as my boxes were filled up and weighed. I left with grapes, strawberries, bell peppers, lettuce, five packs of frozen ground turkey, a half gallon of milk, a bunch of canned food, a loaf of bread (I was allowed to take three loaves but they only had one loaf of whole grain), a big bag of mini candy bars, a gallon of grapefruit juice, and a small chocolate cake.

I’ve always been a volunteer, one to help those less fortunate than me, and I grew up quite privileged. Today I felt how it was being on the other side. I still am surprised that my income allowed me to use the food shelf, I suppose I thought the poverty line was lower than it actually is, or I just didn’t know how poor I really am. If I owned my car and had to pay for my insurance, I would not have nearly as much money left for food each month. Yes, I am very privileged, and yes, other people definitely depend on the food shelf more than I do. But, I’ve learned the truth about it, and I’m glad they exist and provide their charity.

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