Scenes From a Midwest Mobile Pantry

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It was 5:30 in the morning – abnormally early for me on a Saturday – and I had just let my dog out my front door to do his version of welcoming the new day. As I closed the storm door to keep the frigid -2 degree air out, I pondered my day.

Before my front door clicked closed, it dawned on me that others were lining up their carts, totes, and wagons of all sizes to mark their place in line for our mobile food pantry that was scheduled for five hours later that day.

I knew that in a few short hours I needed to meet one of our clients at that mobile food pantry. I wanted to understand his world, how he got to a place of kicking pride to the side to ask for help, and to get a sense of how Second Harvest is impacting his life.

When I arrived at the mobile pantry at 8 o’clock the temperature had risen to a balmy -1 degrees. I pulled into the parking lot and saw a nice, orderly line of the placeholders the clients use to not only mark who’s next, but also transport the bounty they would receive that day. As I looked for a parking spot, the faces of those who’d come so early that morning to get a little help came into focus.

Line of carts at a Mobile Food Pantry

Young, old, white, Hispanic, skinny, and those who are a little more “robust,” they were all in their cars trying to stay out of the cold. Some cars were running to provide a little warmth, most were not. I would come to find out later that accusations by other clients like, “If you can afford to keep your car running, you can’t be too hard up” have been made in the past.

Sliding out of my toasty vehicle, the stinging hand of the cold air slapped me in the face. But I had come prepared for the cold; warm boots, a 3-in-1 jacket, a stocking cap, and fur-lined gloves were my weapons of choice against the unrelenting cold.

As I approached the line of carts, looking for the black tote with yellow lid I was told to look for, the thought crossed my mind that those who had been here for over two hours might be looking on from their cars thinking I was trying to cut into the line. I wanted so badly to tell them I was not here for food, I was here to help. But I didn’t have the time; I needed to find Joe.

While looking for Joe’s vehicle, a little girl of about 6 or 7 jumped out of a minivan for some unknown reason wearing little more than a spring coat. In my head I hoped she had something warmer to wear in the car. Later, I would see her in line, exposed to the frigid air with just that same thin coat on, teeth chattering, trying to cozy up to mom for some warmth and to block the wind.

I’m not sure if Joe saw me first, or vice versa, but I knocked on the window of his vehicle and introduced myself. I invited him to sit in my running car while we talked so we wouldn’t have to waste any of his gas. Over the next hour and a half he regaled me stories of his family, colorful work history, high aptitude for fixing things, and love of all things fast. At one point I offered to take him somewhere to grab a little breakfast, after looking at the time he declined for fear of losing his place in line. So a cup of hot chocolate from the nearest gas station would have to do.

Joe at a Mobile Food Pantry

Somewhere between seeing the piece of paper with a hand-drawn body showing all his injuries, and watching him wince in pain multiple times just sitting in a vehicle, I knew he wasn’t lying about not being able to work. He admitted to living life hard and to its fullest, but shook his head at the thought of being 57 and relying on others to survive for the rest of his life.

As Joe and I talked I kept looking at the line of people that was growing. It was around the grand-stand now and, for some reason, the newcomers weren’t just putting their cart, tote, or other placeholder in line and heading back to their car, they were standing out in the still -1 degree weather; some with little more than a blanket around them. The food distribution didn’t begin for another hour!

When Joe gave the “Let’s go” signal we left the comfort of a warm vehicle to join the masses laying siege to the elements. I told Joe that I wanted to go say hi to our driver, the organizers, and some of the volunteers helping that day.

It was a banner day for volunteers – more than 25 students from a local school came to help. The pantry organizer was beaming – as much as one can beam wearing a blaze-orange coat, wool hat and knitted scarf. Talking with the organizers, hearing their stories of why they do what they do, and seeing their face when they talked about helping others was humbling.

The line began to move and I needed to excuse myself to go find Joe. Behind Joe was a senior couple in “matching” snow suits. “Matching” only in the sense that they were both the old-school, one-piece snowsuits of my childhood 40 years ago. The woman was so proud of herself for being able to add some extra fabric along the sides to – according to her – “handle the expansion that happens to your body as you get older.”

Following Joe through the line I came across a young mother carrying a baby in one of those front-loading carrying slings that gave mom an extra hand to carry the food she was receiving. Her three year-old daughter was next to her wearing a billowy pink winter coat, a white hat with a puffy tassel on top, and an innocent rosy-cheek smile that warms everyone who sees it. I was silently proud at the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables we were able to give them that day!

I excused myself to go say hi to members of a local church who came to give away tables and racks full of clothes. They didn’t have the luxury of being inside and away from the weather, and while the icicles hanging from their noses painted a picture of misery, their smiles and attitudes about the people they were helping certainly did not. I’m amazed at how much good there is in this world!

With Joe’s trip through the gauntlet of boxes of food complete, and his heavy-duty black tote filled, it was time to load him up and send him on his way. We’d said all there was that needed to be said, so when he shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and quietly said, “Thank you,” that was all I needed.

Driving home I reflected on my time at that mobile food pantry. I was sad that the line was so long, and that the people we served had to stand in such bitter cold, but I was happy that we were able to serve them all. I said to myself, “THAT is why I do what I do!”

By Kris Tazelaar, Communications Manager for Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin

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