First out of the donation bag were the chocolate Santa Clauses, long after the Christmas season was over. Next was a can of Campbell's soup, three years past its expiration date. An assortment of foil-wrapped hotel coffee packets followed, then Halloween candy in a trick-or-treat bag, a jar of maraschino cherries, and a dented tin of sweetened condensed milk.
I was doing my monthly shift at the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, housed in a church in an affluent Chicago suburb. While waiting for our clients to arrive, I sorted donations and stocked shelves. As I went through bag after bag, box after box—and threw into the trash what some people considered "good enough for the hungry"—I felt increasingly angry. I also felt ashamed.
I used to think these things were good enough, too.
Food pantries are often the mainstay of refugees, single moms who can't make it on one paycheck, the disabled or mentally ill, and retirees on fixed incomes. As the economic crisis deepens, that clientele is changing. Food pantries saw a 30 percent average increase in emergency food requests in 2008, according to Ross Fraser, media relations manager of Feeding America (formerly known as America's Second Harvest). The $657-million-revenue charity provides more than 2 billion pounds of groceries through 205 food banks that serve 63,000 food pantries, and estimates that it serves 25 million people who are at risk for hunger. Among these are 9 million children and almost 3 million senior citizens.
Of those who use the pantries, 36 percent live in households where at least one person is employed. Food pantries are seeing more of the working poor who can't make ends meet on low wages, Fraser says, as well as the white-collar middle class who work in hard-hit ...1