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 industries such as the housing sector. Some states, such as New Hampshire, Florida, Massachusetts, and Ohio, have had a much higher spike in food pantry use, and the percentages could increase.

"If the economy continues to decline, it will just get worse," Fraser says. "Millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. They are only one paycheck away from catastrophe."

Understanding the Hungry

When I first volunteered at the food pantry five years ago, I had a vague sort of guilt about world hunger, brought on by newspaper headlines about children dying in Africa from malnutrition. Growing up, when I was exhorted to "think about the starving children in China" and clean my plate, I knew some people didn't have enough to eat. In my family, the preparation of good food was a way of showing love, so the knowledge that some people went hungry haunted me in more than just a logical way. Volunteering at the food pantry seemed like a salve for my conscience.

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The interdenominational pantry where I volunteer is supported by 17 churches in my town—Protestant and Catholic working together—as well as schools, businesses, and personal donations from the community. Last year, the pantry scheduled about 3,500 appointments for local families to pick up food. Clients must prove they live in Glen Ellyn or a bordering community, but do not have to show proof of need. They may visit up to six times a year, and no more than once a month. Emergency bags are also available for walk-ins at the discretion of the supervisor.

The client first chooses from a list of staple foods (meat, cheese, eggs, milk) that are bagged by volunteers. While waiting for his or her staples to be bagged, the client receives a basket to use to shop for other foods to supplement those basics. I began as a bagger, then moved to a shopper, helping clients one on one choose from the assortment of extras on the shelves.

During a two-hour shift, I help maybe eight people. Each client is as different as the patterns in a kaleidoscope: retirees, the mentally ill, single mothers, young men fallen on hard times. Many are immigrants who speak no English: a Vietnamese woman with children, a refugee family from Sudan, an elderly woman from Ukraine. When confronted with such donated items as Suddenly Salad, Hostess Ding Dongs, bags of pastel-colored marshmallows, or SpaghettiOs, they are baffled. Even with an interpreter, they have difficulty bridging the culinary cultural barrier. If you have always shopped at an open-air market for your family, how do you understand instant mashed potatoes? Hamburger Helper? Fruit Roll-Ups?

Not everyone is grateful. Some clients, angry about their circumstances, refuse eye contact, choose foods as quickly as possible, and leave without saying more than a few words. Others take their frustration out on the volunteers. One woman lectured me on my "short shorts" (it was July, and we were sweltering). Another badgered me to let her pack her basket past the "full line," refusing to take no for an answer until a supervisor intervened. A few take advantage, packing their baskets with the most expensive items on the shelves while telling me that "other food pantries have a much better selection than yours."

If you volunteer to feel good about yourself, you'll work a few shifts, then give it up. Lofty ideals shatter like a stained-glass window pelted by rocks. Some days I wonder, Do food pantries really help?

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"Who are we to judge who is truly hungry?" asked Susan Papierski, assistant director at the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, acknowledging that she gets discouraged sometimes, too. "It's that one person who really needs our services. I look at them and say, 'That's why I'm here.'?"

She reminded me that hunger isn't always obvious. "It can look like you and me, or it can be your neighbor and you don't even know about it." What helps her, she said, is hearing from donors who used to be clients, got back on their feet, and now help support the pantry.

When I am discouraged, I also think of the kids. As Fraser at Feeding America told me, "Children are not responsible for their circumstances." Then he quoted a popular saying at his organization: "A child who is hungry cannot learn; they become an adult who cannot earn." Making sure no one goes hungry makes not only moral sense but practical and economic sense as well.

It's the grateful clients and the success stories that stick in my mind:

  • The refugee mother whose son went on to attend Harvard on a full scholarship.
  • The suburban mom who thanked me and "God blessed" me more times in 15 minutes than I could count.
  • The kind, elderly man from Florence who cracked jokes and laughed at my attempts to speak a few words of Italian as we selected pasta and cannellini beans.
  • The mother of the refugee family of six who showed palpable relief as she loaded her basket with rice, beans, and vegetables. That month, she could feed her family. Her smile said "thank you" in every language.

Seeing Faces

As my food pantry changes to meet the needs of its clients—offering fresh garden produce in the summer, keeping an eye on what local clients prefer and changing their staples to reflect this—I am changing as well. Now when I donate food, I think twice about what goes into my bag. Rice, cooking oil, chicken broth. Pasta and peanut butter. Canned beans. Tomato sauce. I remember Jesus' words in Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, …"

Instead of a vague notion of "the hungry," I see the Muslim woman with the shy, dark-haired four-year-old boy who has the most luminous eyes I've ever seen. The badly injured Asian woman unable to work but cheerful and smiling nonetheless. The neatly dressed professional man who was laid off but has kept his dignity.

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I think of two blonde girls ages six and eight. I coax their names from them. Then, warming up, they tell me about their favorite subjects in school. I think about them leaving the pantry, sitting down for dinner, and eating until they are full. I think of their exhausted mother packing their lunches for school the next day. I think of these girls growing up, healthy and strong.

Now when I think of the hungry, I no longer see headlines, but faces. And that has made all the difference.

Cindy Crosby is the author of five books, including the Ancient Christian Devotional: Cycle C, with Thomas C. Oden (May 2009, IVP).

Related Elsewhere:

This article was posted today with "Hunger by the Numbers." Christianity Today has a special section on world hunger.

Learn more about domestic hunger through Feeding America, which bills itself as the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity.

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