Who Needs Them?

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If you volunteered to feed the homeless on a holiday, did you recognize yourself in any of them? I’m guessing that most of you imagine yourself using a food bank about as often as you imagine being in prison.

As did I, until a few months ago.

I finally showed up at my area food bank north of Seattle after the third urging from Jennine. Jennine is a middle-aged powerhouse marketing professional who’d begun using a food bank after three years of unemployment from a declined industry plus being hit by a car in a crosswalk, resulting in a law suit and surgeries. Although I’ve been disabled for two decades and mostly unemployed since 2001; although people with my disease need twenty words for exhaustion; although I live every moment in various kinds and degrees of pain; although I’ve experienced immobility, loss of memory, severe hallucinations, the inability to do basic addition and to form or comprehend phrases, two years of surgically installed IV lines and in-home nursing, two near-deaths, etc.—I’d thought it appropriate to contribute goods during food collection drives. When I mentioned getting chilled and achy at the food bank to my doctor, she assumed I was there to volunteer (I do at a preschool and a performance center). Jennine thought my self-preservation skills needed serious work.

Today, after lining up outside the church administration building’s back door and signing in, I’m given number 106. There are forty-odd clients with higher numbers. Based on my past two visits, I know there’ll be a good wait before my number is called and I’m given one of the few carts to collect my food from the outdoor shed/canopy. I’d like to visit with Sharon, a former telecom manager whom I met my first visit (she’s awaiting her sixth back surgery), but she isn’t here this week. Some experienced food bank clients return to nearby parked vehicles for a bit. Some clients waiting with me in the large asphalt area have come prepared: one guy with pink cheeks and silver hair curling around his baseball cap holds a cracked tablet; a thirty-ish woman huddled in her hooded coat (one of only two African Americans here today) leans against a cold wall and reads a fat paperback. Others gather in small groups or pairs. Two more thirty-ish women, with long black ponytails, chat in Spanish with a couple and their young children; the few stout women in long skirts and headscarves talk softly in their native language; smokers of various ages congregate at the edge of the parking lot. I overhear enough of one group’s conversation to understand they are helping a new client from their apartment building. A trim, well-groomed, forty-ish Asian woman speaks briskly into her cell phone while pacing in soccer cleats. A tall, round-faced woman with a brightly patterned skirt rippling under her long wool coat gently disciplines her wiggly son in Russian. A young woman sporting a sweatshirt, pajama pants, fuzzy boots and half-black, half-blonde hair calls out to someone in a hoarse voice.

To take my mind off the cold, I’m making demographic charts in my head. I’ve mentioned several ethnic markers and different languages (partly because their foreign sounds attract me). Yet I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of food bank clients are born in the United States. Most here are also white, as am I (as is Jennine and most of the people at her food bank). One-quarter of the clients here seem to be thirty or younger, one-third are seniors. Ten or so people with serious limps or obvious back issues cover all age brackets. The four people using canes are probably over fifty; the two using walkers are likely over sixty-five. Two-thirds of this clientele are female. Most are height-weight proportionate. Though I’ve no sense of how many of us have some level of employment, when my number is called to enter the food collection line the two women ahead of me are discussing work-schedule conflicts.

Stereotyping, or making assumptions, is necessary for decision-making, even survival, yet we can be so incorrect. Contrary to societal belief, more than 45% of the individuals using a food bank, meal program or shelter in Western Washington have some form of post-secondary education. Assuming that food bank clients are young, lazy, fat, foreign, addicts, whatever; assuming that they sit around eating junk food and watching reality TV is like assuming that I spend my days entering particle physics competitions and (because I’m lean) tossing my calories into the toilet.

For people of insufficient means, many basic activities—transportation, getting affordable food/clothes/daycare/doctors/cars, etc—are much more time- and energy-consuming than usual. Going to the library for computer use. Searching Craigslist for months for a used car/bike/phone, trying to be first on a good deal, while limping along with half –working equipment. Repairing things that don’t function properly. Hunting for shoes that fit at thrift stores, or a “close-enough” physician who accepts Medicare. Traveling further each time to access “new client” dental care specials. Job-hunting with these challenges. Waiting for hours at a food bank, then getting to a store where you can fill in the gaps affordably (food bank supplies are erratic and limited; the next installment will cover this in depth). Additionally, I can assure you that being unable to function for any length of time—seriously injured or ill with disease or depression—even if you are creative, it’s boring.

I can’t be sure of anything else about my fellow number-holders. Looking at the tall, bearded, casually stylish man behind me, I can’t know if his North Face coat (like my clothes) was a gift, or from Goodwill, or from a better time. Just as my physical and cognitive challenges are mostly invisible when I’m in public, I can’t guess what these people are dealing with.

You may have heard the statement, “seniors shouldn’t have to choose between their prescriptions and food.” You may think this only applies to seniors. We forget about the large number of disabled citizens dependent upon Social Security. I am one of them, having lost a seven-year legal battle to access the benefits of my long-term disability insurance policy with Prudential. Additionally, an often unmentioned component is that federal support program benefits are calculated on national averages and are not informed by the relative cost of living in the recipient’s region. (As is the poverty level: $11,770/year for a single person, $24,250 for a four-person household.) In 2013, local food prices varied from 71 percent to 180 percent of the national average. Social Security hasn’t included a cost of living increase in years, yet the same carton of eggs which cost $2.69 here several years ago now costs $4.35—a 60% increase. Some other statistics to consider:

  • According to the Sperling’s Best Places, the cost of living in King County is 43% above the national average.
  • Washington state ranks 20th in “child food insecurity” (CFI), at 23.1% vs. 14.6% “overall” (all-ages) food insecurity.
  • Some racial and ethnic groups across the U.S., such as African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos, are disproportionately at risk for food insecurity.
  • Nationwide, 25% of military families need help getting sufficient food
  • One in seven Americans – 46 million people – rely on food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families.
  • Nationally, 26 percent of food-insecure individuals are above 185 percent of the poverty line and are typically ineligible for most food assistance programs.

Seventy-five percent of counties where the majority of food-insecure people are likely ineligible are in metropolitan areas that tend to have higher-than-average median incomes.

You might think, as I caught myself doing, that the newer, fancier vehicles in the parking lot should belong to food bank staffers, not clients. Maybe they do.

Two hours after I’d arrived I was I was putting the food into my car. Across the street, a fifty-something-aged woman opened the doors and trunk of a sedan to load in her own groceries. Her car was crammed with possessions, and bedding was spread across the back seat.

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