Dear Congress: Women and Children (and Men) are Starving

Lorraine Berry

I worked at the food bank last night. In an hour, we fed 15 percent of the population of the small, rural town in which I live.

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(volunteer–in turquoise, seeing how long it’s taking to get through the line)

Tonight, I worked with other food bank volunteers to feed 15 percent of the town where I live.

Fifteen percent. 

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(two long-term volunteers as we neared the end)

Tonight, we started with the largest shipment of food–six palletts–that we have ever received. I had never seen so much food. Cans and boxes  stacked high on the tables, and, behind each table, unopened cardboard boxes made skyscrapers–some taller than me (who is 5 foot 1).  Back in the storeroom, probably twice as much brown boxes waited if they were to be needed. 

We had hot dogs, tuna, three different kinds of soup, two different kinds of canned vegetables, vegetarian beans, two different kinds of cereal, chicken stuffing, three different kinds of pasta, pasta sauce with meat, pork and beans, cookies, margarine, chocolate milk, eggs, and cheese. On the “greens” table, much of it from the organic garden we keep to supplement the food pantry, was lettuce, tomatoes, and other leafy greens (I think I saw collard greens, but quite frankly, I was so busy I never got a chance to take stock.)

As soon as I walked in, I could feel the anticipation. A quiet sense that we were going to get “hit”. Maybe because the line was already quite long by 5:15, but also because volunteers were already working,  in the midst of putting the boxes together for the homebound. Just putting those boxes together depleted what was on the table, and so I spent the next 30 minutes in continuous motion, box cutter in hand, opening the boxes behind me and restocking the tables so that when people came through, they could efficiently move through the line. 

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(what was left on the first table)

Afternoon thunderstorms had done nothing to break the humidity. Within the old firehouse where we distribute food, I had long since broken a sweat, and the rebound headache that had threatened, buffeted by the pressure system in freefall, was surging along my eyebrows. I kept swigging the seltzer, as if drinking water was going to both kill the headache and make me capable of keeping up with what was building outside. 

Ten minutes before six, the line was quite simply, ridiculous. It went out the door and snaked down the country highway that runs through town. I hoped the rain would hold off. We had no shelter for those who would be waiting in the rain. At the same time, they were broiling in the heat. But as we saw the numbers building, we knew we had to open more food and have it ready. So we worked. And worked. 

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(me, staring where there had once been a mountain of stuffing, spaghetti sauce, pasta–you can see what’s left)

Patricia Brhel runs the food pantry. Anytime I want to complain about pain, I shut my mouth. Pat is one of the smartest women I know. She also has rheumatoid arthritis, and walks with crutches, braces on arms and legs to support her joints. In addition to running the food pantry, Pat runs the community center, writes for the local paper, and cares for a disabled daughter. The community does not have the money to pay her for her services, so everything that Pat does is volunteer labor.  Ted, her assistant, who had been there since morning unpacking palletts, was checking with each of the volunteers to make sure we were ready. Pat nodded her head, and it began. 

What happened in the next 60 minutes, I barely have a memory of. It was work that involved smiling and speaking to each person as they passed through the line, joking with the kids as they selected out the few items that parents allow them to help carry, and this steady rhythm of bending, cutting open a box, unloading its contents, and placing food on the tables. At one point, I remember slinging bags of pasta into the pasta area, trying to keep up with the demand.

When there is more than one item offered, each “unit” gets a choice of one. So, for example, tonight, people had a choice between bran flakes or corn flakes. They had a choice of egg noodles, macaroni, or ziti. (Are you sensing a pattern here–lots of carbs, some protein, and the greens we can provide from the garden.)

The surge never stopped. On a normal night, we’ll be extremely busy for 15-20 minutes, and then, for the rest of the 90 minutes, people will trickle in. Tonight was a hurricane blowing through. Despite having several cases of meat sauce and those cases of spaghetti, I found myself shouting, “Ted! More meat sauce please! And pasta!” I opened cases of cereal as if I was distributing manna.  Again. And again. Sometimes, Ted was so busy trying to get food for other volunteers that I would run back to the storeroom and grab a couple of cases myself, hoping to make it back before the table was bare. 

As I passed Ted on my way out of the storeroom, I started spewing profanities. “Bleeping Congress better bleeping pass the unemployment benefits extension,” I said so I thought only he could hear. “It’s going to get worse.” 

Pat overheard me, two cases of meat sauce balanced in her arms, and commented that she was glad the President had spoken to Congress about its delaying tactics. Summer is normally more busy than the school year. Why? Because the kids who would normally get “free breakfast and lunch” are now home, and suddenly, parents who can barely feed their kids as it is now have 20 more meals to provide their children. 

Hunger doesn’t take a vacation. 

Around 7:15, when a lone man wandered into the food pantry, I was ashamed. The tables were down to a few items, and in some cases, were Mother Hubbard bare. 

Pat wrote to me later. 

“We did have a new record tonight, exceeding even last Thanksgiving’s numbers,” she said. “We served 174 households and went through 242 units (cans of tuna, packages of cheese, etc.) this represented 145 children, 228 adults and 60 seniors for, a record number of people, 433!”

The population of my small town is close to 3,000.

433 people made the trek to get food. 

We, your people, Congress, are hungry. 

Stop fucking around and pass the unemployment benefits extension. Now. Please. 

Our next food pantry is August 2. 

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