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We Need to Talk About Food Insecurity and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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This may not be a popular story. I know that. I didn’t write it to be popular. I wrote it to be honest. I wrote it because I can’t not write it. Because it’s important. Because it keeps me up at night.

I hope you’ll have an open heart and an open mind. I hope you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. I hesitated for weeks to share this. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. I didn’t want to be judged. I’m afraid of what you will say.

My family is hungry. Every day. Despite following all the rules and working full time. We still need help right now. And thankfully, there are food pantries in our county.

The problem? We’re essential workers and the food pantries are only open during the workday. We reached out once to have someone pick up the food for us, but this is not something we can ask every week. We need real help and sustainable solutions.

The few times we were able to take off work or visit a weekend mobile pantry, we drove 45 minutes each way and waited in a line of cars for two hours to receive help with food and diapers.

The first time we received:

2 bags coleslaw (spoiled)
2 bags Asian salad mix (spoiled)
2 bags Southwest salad mix (spoiled)
1 can cranberry sauce (dented)
1 can three-bean salad (dented)
1 can bean and bacon soup (expired 2017)
24-pack sugar-free Mountain Dew
5 individual diapers (one size too small)

We ate the canned goods anyway. We used the diapers anyway. We had to throw out the coleslaw and salad which were moldy and slimy. We donated the Mountain Dew to the homeless.

The second time we received:

2 large local papayas (rotten)
2 bags romaine (spoiled)
1 bag green grapes (spoiled)
1 bunch organic bananas
1 jar artificial grape spread
1 can Manwich (expired)
1 can chicken soup (no label)
1 can sweet peas

I understand it’s an impossible job to collect, move and distribute literally tons of food for the needy. I’m not surprised much of it is spoiled, expired or dented. I just don’t know what to do about it.

I know this is hard to hear. I know it doesn’t feel good. I know my experience isn’t everyone’s experience. I’m so grateful for any help my family receives. But you should know where your donations are going, honestly. Or maybe you’d rather not know. I get that.

You might ask why we don’t apply for food stamps. We were denied. We make too much even though we never have enough. We also don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, but are unable to afford insurance. This is the reality for many Americans.

We’re college-educated. We’ll keep working hard. With any luck, we’ll reach a better place financially. When that day comes, we’ll turn around and lift up those behind us. We’ll say, “We see you. Here’s some fresh milk, bread, meat, fruit, veggies and diapers.” Because we know what it’s like.

I would rather watch the feel-good Facebook videos of selfless volunteers handing out bread to the hungry. I would rather forget this too.

But then I think of those who can’t forget. Those who accept whatever help they receive with a smile and a thank you while holding back tears and fear and frustration and disappointment.

I can’t begin to tell you what it feels like to risk your job to spend your lunch break waiting in line for hours to get home to your child who’s hoping for a banana and all you have to give is bad coleslaw or Mountain Dew.

Do you know what you do? You give them the last slice of bread and a cup of water. You kiss them on the forehead and you vow to work harder. You share your story even if it’s scary. Because they deserve better.

Maybe this is just what it looks like to receive help. Maybe random, spoiled, expired food is the only option. Maybe it has to look like throwing away half of what we receive. Maybe it always looks like an empty gas tank, empty bellies, and a prayer that this time you’ll get the bananas. I hope not.

This is nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault. Millions if not billions have been given to feed the hungry during this pandemic. Is this really the best we can do? I don’t know.

I simply ask that you think twice before you donate only what your family doesn’t want, won’t eat, or whatever’s in the back of your pantry. I hope you’ll reconsider when you shrug your shoulders at the expiration date and toss it in the collection box.

When pantries put together grocery “kits,” please consider what a family would need to make a meal. We don’t have the extras. If we have to buy three ingredients to make the one donated item, we’re going hungry.

I truly believe it doesn’t have to be this way. But for it to change, we have to be willing to have hard conversations. We have to be willing to face what hunger really looks like in our communities. Are you ready?

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Jovanmandic.

Originally published: May 5, 2020
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