Times can get tough, can’t they?
Just when you thought you were living the high life in a dual income household, going on vacations, buying the latest shoe “must-haves” from Nordstrom, signing the kids up for any activity they wanted to participate in and going out to eat on a whim, something major happens. The breadwinner loses their job, a health emergency arises, a divorce occurs, a business deal tanks, someone steals funds from you, a family member gets sick, or someone dies.
Even when day-to-day sucktacular things happen, bouncing back might not be that big of a deal. Maybe a spouse/partner loses their job but is employed again in a month. Maybe there are some unexpected visits to the doctor when 2 of your kids break a wrist or elbow and end up casts, yet you still have insurance and some of the costs are covered. Maybe the stock market bottoms out, but you persevere and keep investing anyway.
But what happens when the you-know-what REALLY hits the fan? A major life occurrence, the kind that ranks super high on a stress level chart, blows up right in front of you. That kind of stuff can completely catch you off guard.
The list of awful things that can go wrong is endless and managing the same lifestyle you’ve grown accustomed to is no longer feasible. So while you scale back…and back and back…and back, sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is completely out. What then?
Money’s tighter than it’s ever been…Help!
Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and months turn into, well, you know. You’re at the point of wondering if there will be money to pay the mortgage next month. Or possibly, you’ve already had to sell your home and downsize considerably.
Hard times hit us all. And they can sock it to you in a major way, sometimes when you think you’re untouchable.
I’ve been there. For me, it was a divorce, a move, and loads of health problems along with related expenses galore.
Around that same time, I got introduced to a local food pantry. Someone working at a local program suggested that I go and utilize its provisions but I simply didn’t think I qualified. I figured I had to have a different set of problems and live in a whole different manner. That’s what I thought at first anyway.
I went to the food pantry, and here’s what I learned. You CAN use a food pantry even if you’re middle class!
1) FOOD PANTRIES ARE FOR EVERYONE
Most food pantries exist to serve people as their patrons see fit. What that means is if money is tight and you feel that even a few days of groceries and supplies will help get you through this hump, then, by all means, GO.
There is no bouncer at the door eyeing up your car or clothes and deciding if you are worthy or not. People are there to do the best for themselves that they can.
Use it for as long as you require and be thankful for the availability.
2) IT HELPS THE BOTTOM LINE IN A TIME OF NEED
My expenses were huge and not only didn’t I know how overall bills were going to get paid, but I worried about keeping up with daily expenses like food.
I was so relieved to find that receiving a week’s worth of groceries (and sometimes household supplies) helped take the edge off the debt I found myself falling into.
Yes, you can eat healthy!
3) THERE CAN BE A LOT OF VERY HEALTHY FOOD AVAILABLE
One of the reasons I was extremely hesitant to utilize a food pantry is due to my eating habits. I feed my family a clean diet with as many organic items as we can afford, along with as few processed items as possible.
I certainly didn’t expect to find anything healthy at a food bank. I was wrong.
Yes, there are processed foods but no one makes you take what you don’t want. You may be allowed a certain number of items from a particular section, yet what you are able to choose from other categories of food might be based on weight. Pick and choose what works best for your family. That will vary from visit to visit depending on the pantry’s supplies.
4) DON’T ALWAYS EXPECT TO FIND THE SAME THINGS
During my hunt and peck process to find organic foods, I would be thrilled to find something, like organic peanut butter or organic milk. The next visit, I might be able to find organic yogurt or organic canned beans, but it was never the same thing regularly.
Don’t expect to go in with a list like you can at a regular grocery store. You can only choose from what’s available that visit. Sometimes, it’s the strangest stuff. One time, the pantry got in multiples pallets of Dr. Mercola mouth spray and gave them out in unlimited amounts.
Offerings change on a very regular basis. One time, you might find a random bag of organic rice yet the following visit, you’re blessed with loads of fresh organic vegetables.
Waste not, want not.
5) YOU’RE HELPING REDUCE THE MASSIVE FOOD WASTE IN THE UNITED STATES
There is an incredible amount of food waste in our country. An estimated 30-40% of our entire food supply in the U.S. gets thrown away! Grocery stores are bound by laws tied to food expiration dates and not-quite-perfect standards.
In food pantries, you may find canned and boxed foods, toiletries and the like with slightly expired dates stamped on them. In the industry, these dates are suggestions as to when the items will be at their best. Best taste, best consistency and freshness. Although the item is no longer considered at its peak for these qualities, it is almost always safe to consume after that point.
Summertime provides a particularly ample supply of local produce. I remember being amazed by the number of pallets stacked one on top of each other filled with organic fruit that grocery stores refused due to expiration dates.
Huge crates of local farm vegetables were such a welcome commodity, and when there’s a surplus, you’re welcome to take more than the standard allotment. There are even times when you can take as much as you like of an item.
Bread is another item that seems to be tremendously plentiful. And not just white bread. Organic, rye, sourdough, seeded, sprouted…and the list goes on.
6) THERE ARE A FEW LIMITS AND RESTRICTIONS
It’s typically a misnomer that food banks require you to show an income statement. If anything, they will ask for proof of residency via some sort of bill (gas, electric, internet, phone, etc.) but some may not even ask for that.
You may need to sign in, list your address and how many people are in your household. Often, the number of adults and children in your home gives the pantry the ability to provide a certain number of pounds of food per household amount. Sometimes, they work on a point system and different categories of foods are worth various points.
While each food bank has different guidelines, they are typically well monitored to provide families with as much as they possibly can and then some.
It’s not a free for all. Your pantry will have rules to follow, but its workers will also help guide you through the process. They’re happy to weigh your bags so you can determine if you can add more items or if you have to put something back. Yes, there are decisions like this that you have to make.
Limits such as going one time per week, waiting until it’s your turn, taking only 1 or 2 items from an individual section (but possibly unlimited from another) may exist.
7) EXPECT LONG WAITS
There are a lot of people who need financial assistance in some form or another and while food pantries offer a welcome relief in the way of grocery provisions, don’t expect the experience to be like standard grocery store shopping.
There’s usually a schedule for both sign-in and shopping. Lines start to form early and not only might you have to stand in line just to sign in, but you will also most likely only be able to enter the shopping area according to what number you were in line. The entire process can be time-consuming.
Once in the pantry, there’s probably going to be a process that helps to move people through the shopping areas. Expect lines here as well.
8) RENEWED HUMILITY AND APPRECIATION
Yes, I have lived a comfortable middle-class life my entire life. It is what I know. It is where my experience lies. But you, too, can use a food pantry even if you’re middle class.
Even as a child, it has not, however, been without major health difficulties and corresponding costs. I watched my parents struggle through decades of my father’s significant medical expenses that often left them on the edge of financial disaster. But they kept going, kept working, kept expanding. I have done the same.
Life happens, and it’s never wrapped in a perfect package. We do what we need to when we need to do it. For me, visiting a food pantry for a time offered a degree of relief.
I knew I was financially, and in plenty of cases, mentally, in a far more stable place than most of the pantry’s customers. Monetary limitations, however, had begun to cripple me. Opening my mind and heart to the availability of the food pantry gave me an added sense of humility and gratefulness for what I already had and the life I lived.
9) GIVE BACK WHEN YOU ARE ABLE
The vast majority of food banks are run by volunteer’s time and efforts and are unable to stay afloat without their help. There are countless ways to help in your community and assisting at a pantry is certainly one.
Even if you don’t have a lot of time, shifts tend to be short and offer a variety of options. You can help organize incoming donations, stock shelves or assist folks during the checkout process. Some food banks even offer childcare. If you like to spend time with little ones, it’s a memorable way to do so.
Whether you are in need of the services of a food pantry or are willing to volunteer, you won’t have to look far to find one in operation. There are over 60,000 agencies in the U.S. that work in tandem with food pantries, food banks and kitchen services. You might find that getting the help you need or giving assistance as you are able is a welcome addition to your life.