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Feature Mon Jun 03 2013
A few months ago, I was sorting sweet potatoes fresh from a downstate farm on the west side at the Greater Chicago Food Depository headquarters. Working alongside my coworkers on a volunteer outing, I felt good giving back to those less fortunate. Today I sit in a room with at least 30 other people, waiting my turn to receive food that I myself am struggling to afford.
Being laid off is hard. You already feel like less of a person the moment it happens. My unemployment barely covers my rent, and I'm trying to slowly use my saving and severance so I can keep health insurance, so I am joining the ranks of many Chicagoans asking for help. Food stamp usage in Illinois is on the rise, but many individuals fall just above the qualifying line, myself included. Or perhaps do not qualify for enough assistance. Yet they are still struggling to survive and are being forced to choose between bills and basic needs. For many, visiting a food pantry is the best option, and one that I myself have thankfully found in my own time of need.
Every form of assistance includes waiting in line. It becomes painfully obvious when you have time to sit because you are unemployed. Sitting at the unemployment office, sitting at the food bank. Life becomes a waiting room, unsure when your name will be called and you'll move up rank. I sat with my ticket in hand, 12 people in line in front of me. The room is mostly women with children (not surprising, as nearly 37% of those receiving help from the Food Depository are children). After about 35 minutes, my number is called. I hand over my driver's license to confirm I am in the service area. Most pantries only serve individuals within their service area, so you usually go to a pantry based on your zip code. I signed my name, told them how many were in my household, checked off whether I was getting food stamps or not, told my next visit could be in two weeks, and then was sent to the food tables. At this pantry, people were working separate stations. A woman handed me some canned goods, then let me pick two canned soups from a box. At the next table a man handed me a box of cereal, and let me choose two dry goods. A woman then handed me a bag of produce, then a man gave me meat. I was suppose to get bread and eggs, but I was confused on the packaging of my things and was holding up the line, so the guy stopped to yell at another worker for not giving me correct information, thus forgetting to give me the rest of my food. It was a quick and well-oiled machine, and once my name was called I was done getting my food in less than 10 minutes.
My second visit to another pantry was similar yet different in many ways. Pantries are only open during certain hours on certain days (the Food Depository has a handy online guide by zip code), and this one was actually within walking distance of where I live. I arrived to a tiny basement doorway with four folding chairs in a front room. Only one person was in front of me, and two others showed up to wait behind me. The workers were a bit more relaxed, and they took down the same information, although this pantry did not tell me I had to wait any certain amount of time to return. Also there was no real order to picking up the food here, no assembly line of volunteers. I was handed a bag of potatoes, then they let me pick out some bananas from a box. I was given a plastic grocery bag of food, and then was able to dig through some boxes of produce to take what I wanted, no supervision or direction on how much. I wasn't given as much food or any sort of balance, but still was given good quality food.
The main surprise to me was the quality of food I received at both pantries. I was expecting simple off-brand items and generic goods (and some were indeed that), but what I wasn't expecting was the quality and variety of some goods I received. A lot of the items I took home with me were organic or name brand. At my first pantry I received some Amy's Organic soups, Special K Berry cereal, a whole Tyson chicken, Bob's Red Mill couscous. There were items that I usually couldn't afford when I had a job, since I still stuck to generic brands and seldom could afford organic. The second pantry visit included fresh baby bok choy, organic potatoes, and two whole pork loins -- which was shocking, since some of the other bags being given out held raisins, potato chips and oatmeal. I think it was more an issue with the pantry not distributing everything equally.
So overall, from two pantry visits I received a good mix of dry goods (some organic), a good mix of fresh produce (some organic), a whole chicken, two pork loins and a bag of pork patties, some dairy, and a good mix of canned goods (some organic). I could have taken more as well, but only took what I needed and knew I would eat. None of this food was spoiled (a few sell-by dates on meat had passed, but the meat had been frozen before distribution to keep it fresh) and only a few pieces of produce had some bruising or sprouting. It wasn't any different than the food I bring home from the store. If anything, I was bringing home more well-balanced food compared to what I was buying at the store on such a tight budget. Not only am I getting the financial help I need, I'm also going to be able to have a pretty healthy and balanced diet as well.
I took inventory of all my current food, made a grocery list based sales at my local store, and what I need for recipes or to add to my food supply, and totaling up that cost I'm going to save well over $100 a month (if not more) thanks to the help from my local food pantry. On average before being laid off, I was spending around $80-90 every other week at the grocery store, not including the cost of ordering takeout or eating out for our two-person household. Since being laid off, I rarely buy premade food and only buy grocery items on sale -- mostly low quality cheap cuts of meat and a lot of pasta or cheap grains -- and the costs were still too high. Thanks to the assistance I am receiving it will cut the cost all around, and I'll be able to put the money I am saving towards paying my rent in the coming months, paying utilities, transit and insurance. It will help ease the stress of worrying about my finances and even cut down on the daily worries I have of wondering how long it will be until I find employment again.
One of the worst parts of losing employment and being at a financial disadvantage is the lack of control in your life, the constant worry about being able to provide basic needs for yourself. It's also mentally and emotionally draining, an overall humbling experience when you suddenly have to live very frugal and seek help in order to survive. For me, seeking help was one of the hardest parts. I didn't consider myself poor enough to get this help. It might be close-minded or uneducated of me, but I didn't see a person like myself as the typical individual seeking assistance. And sure, there are people that are struggling more than I am, but it boiled down to realizing that yes, I did need help in order to be able to make it during this period of my life. And I'm looking forward to giving back a donation to the groups that are helping me once I'm back working and steady on my feet.
The picture you have of someone struggling to survive in America is so multifaceted, and really could be anyone you know. A few months ago I was working a low level corporate job, living paycheck to paycheck and like most mid- to late-twentysomethings, spending what was left over to go out for drinks or a trendy dinner with friends. But with little savings, I'm now finding myself financially and socially in a different mindset. Will it change the way I use money after I find a new job? Absolutely. But for now, it's nice to know that I'm not alone during this difficult time, and it is teaching me the value of helping others and being thankful for what you have.