**4th place winner – Writer’s Digest Non-Fiction/Magazine Article competition (2015)
Have you ever stolen toilet paper from a restaurant because you have no money to buy your own? Prepared meals for a family of five for a week with no meat? Eaten cereal for dinner so your kids can have the casserole you made because there isn’t enough for everyone? This is the reality for many working families in our current debt-ridden society. Poor used to mean people with little or no employment. Today, we have families with two full time jobs, some making six figures, who still can’t make ends meet because we’re at the end of a 25 year financial con perpetrated by the financial and credit industries, the results of which are now playing out in families all over North America.
I was on unemployment for all of 2013, trying to cover my expenses with half the income I once had. In May I reluctantly applied to the local food bank. I was hopeful it would help me keep a decent amount of food in the house and lower our grocery budget while I went back to school for retraining, but it didn’t. The experience was a real eye-opener. Let me walk you through a typical food bank visit in my town.
It’s a Thursday morning, and people start lining up an hour before it opens. Most are women, far along enough in years that 40 is likely a dim memory. There are a handful of men in the same age bracket, two 30-ish women with toddlers in strollers, one young man with a knapsack, and me. Some chat with the receptionist as they await the signal that they may proceed to the cafeteria where free coffee and tea is waiting, preceding the hot meal that will be served after 10:00 a.m. Two men peruse the rack of bread that is donated by a local bakery; the food bank hands out over 700 loaves of bread each week.
We are corralled in the front lobby like cattle. There is nowhere to sit; the cafeteria with the tables and chairs is in the same room as the food bank “store” – on the other side of the locked door. At 9:50 one woman asks the receptionist if she can use the washroom, which is also on the other side of the locked door. The receptionist frowns and says, “Can you wait 10 minutes?” She is oozing the self-importance only tinpot despots can project.
“I’ll try,” responds the woman, clearly in some physical discomfort.
Why she can’t be allowed in to use the washroom I can’t fathom. Social Services talk a good game about helping people in need keep their dignity, but where is this philosophy in forcing someone to hold it because the “rules” say the door can’t be opened for another ten minutes? There’s nothing dignified about a grown woman being forced to ask permission to use a toilet, and no excuse to refuse her request.
Permission to proceed is finally given and the rank and file move through the door and make a beeline for the coffee machine, stopping to take a number from the ticket dispenser on their way. Although the food bank doesn’t open until 10:00 a.m., you have to grab your number immediately to avoid a three hour wait for your turn to shop. I am number 57. I pocket my ticket and turn to the nearest table.
“This is taken,” growls a middle-aged man, the sweep of his arm making it clear he is referring to the entire table and not just the chair I was about to sit on. Territory conquered, his stare is aggressive, waiting for me to move on. I do, and quickly. A natural loner, I move to a seat at the back of the room at an empty table. Meanwhile, the resident Napoleon covers his table and assorted chairs with his shopping bags and sits down, his glare daring any unauthorized persons to just try and join him.
I try to stay inconspicuous as I take in my surroundings. I can’t remember the last time I was in a room full of people where not one of them was staring at a smartphone or other tablet-style device. These people have nothing with them but empty shopping bags and their free coffee. A volunteer moves through the room offering newspapers and magazines for people to read while they wait. Few take them, preferring to chat with their friends.
If your application for food bank assistance is accepted, you are given a sheet of coupons in accordance with the size of your family. As a family of five, I get five trips a month for $15.00 worth of food each trip. The below photo is all I was able to get at this visit – try stretching that for seven days with three kids.
The food bank can only be as generous as its donations, which were at an all-time low back then. The industrial fridge has been empty all my visits but one. On my first visit it contained 12 one-litre containers of buttermilk and a box of chicken wieners. I haven’t seen any meat since. There is a bowl of apples and oranges with a sign under it that says “1 item only.” Even though I have three kids, I get one orange. This sign is also on the cereal, tuna, cookies and toiletries (when they actually have these items, and on half my visits they don’t). When donations are down the staff must ration what they have to go around. So at this time everyone was getting $15.00 of food a week, plus a few extra items indicated on their individual coupon sheet. If donations increase, the weekly amount will also increase.
Have you ever donated a package of toilet paper to the food bank box at your local grocery store? It isn’t always given intact to a family. Right now, they are opened up and redistributed in packages of two, and we only get to take one. Again, if they actually have some. In seven visits I only saw toilet paper once.
A quick glance around the food bank store leaves you wondering how people who have no other resources survive. No meat. No milk, cheese, butter or yogurt. Even cereal is scarce. It is 90% soup, canned vegetables (1 item only) and, the most heartbreaking shelf, baby food, which I have only seen once. There are a few packages of pasta, but no spaghetti sauce.
The compassionate staff does their best to get you what they can. They follow you around the store, helping you add up your selection and pointing out any little extras you can take voucher-free.
The room is getting more boisterous. Napoleon now has three others at his table and they all chat as they sip their coffee. Volunteers start serving the morning meal – soup, a rice dish and a slice of buttered bread. There is a man at the next table talking loudly and continuously to no-one, waving his hands about to emphasize his point. He is largely unintelligible although every now and then I catch clearer snippets, like “…the LEAFS!” and something that sounds like “That’s Polacks for ya.” Yet I see him later in the food line and he is speaking quite lucidly to the person standing next to him. Once back in his seat, he continues his monologue to a non-existent audience. I speak to no-one, wait my turn, collect my meager foodstuffs and leave. It is both depressing and humiliating to be there, and I have no desire to linger.
I haven’t attended the food bank since September. As low as my income is sometimes, I can usually afford to buy $15.00 worth of groceries myself, and get something I actually want. The food bank shelves are so empty it isn’t worth my time to sit there for an entire morning just to take home some stale bread, a couple packages of pasta and a piece of fruit. But for many here, this is all they have.
I’m no economist, and I understand only the basics of how North America has ended up in this debt crisis from watching documentaries like “Maxed Out,” but if things are so bad that people have stopped donating to the local charities, a great many people are soon going to be in a lot of trouble. The more stories I read of honest, hardworking people who have played the game only to lose their jobs, their homes, and the means to raise their children, I find myself wondering what life is going to be like when my kids are ready to begin their adult lives. What kind of future do my daughters have to look forward to? I’m not sure I want to know.