March 19, 2018

green beans

Years and years ago, part of my job as office assistant involved running an in-house food pantry for families in need.  Managing the pantry included everything from federal compliance paperwork to visiting a food bank and churches and hauling large boxes in my car, and then pushing a laden hand truck uphill on the sidewalk in front of the building, wanting to shout, "See?  I'm a government employee and I'm working hard" to onlookers.  You can't say there wasn't job variety.  It was one of my favorite duties as an otherwise desk-bound secretary, second only to secretly taking apart laptops and hiding the bits in a filing cabinet drawer when I heard someone coming.

I would bring in boxes upon boxes and fill our shelves with peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, and Pop-Tarts, accompanied by fourteen million cans of corn and green beans.  Pop-Tarts are the opposite of green beans.  A scientist somewhere could prove this.  I'm certain of it.  There is something in the American psyche that says, "I am going to donate some food to those less fortunate than I am.  I will give them canned corn and green beans."  Together these staple vegetables took up an entire wall of shelving.  And the rate of sending them out could never exceed the rate at which they came in, in the boxes of donated goods, so that they eventually became part of the load-bearing structure of the back wall.

(My mother tried to make me eat some canned green beans when I was seven, but I had reached the point of full refusal and decided I would never again ingest them.  There was a battle of wills, during which I sat for hours confined to the dinner table pending consumption of the mushy grey-green fingers of vileness, sat waiting for bedtime, serene and cross-armed, until my mother admitted defeat.  It hurt me later, when putting cans of green beans into a bag for a family.  It felt like assault.)

Our refrigerator accommodated the fresh eggs from our regional food bank and cast-off bakery goods, doughnuts and cakes and cookies, from grocery stores.  There were several freezers, too, and we would get boxes of roasts and ground beef, frozen pizzas, sandwich ham, chickens and turkeys, pounds of bacon, and whole hams around the holidays.  Fortunately, many of these things go well with corn and green beans.

The food bank had its own rules.  The bulk of their items came from grocery store cast-offs, not expired items but perhaps items that just weren't moving, or that were getting close to their expiration dates.  The bank would box things up such that if you wanted to score a good item, like a large jar of pasta sauce, you also had to be willing to take thirteen packs of chicken bouillon cubes and two bottles of salad dressing.  Two jars of peanut butter were usually accompanied by Peeps from the previous Easter and some olives.  If you started combing through and playing mix-and-match, you were kicked out and not permitted to return for a significant period of time.  So you took what you could get.  Boxes of cereal were premium, so you found a way to work Vienna sausages and Heinz squeezable relish into the outgoing boxes.

Churches held food drives for us, too.  We put things on our wish list and got them sometimes.  Meals you could eat in a car.  We knew families who lived in their cars; this was during some of the worst of times of the Great Recession.  Cereal bars and fruit cups for kids.  Crackers and peanut butter.  Canned spaghetti.  That sort of thing.  Theses churches came through for us like champs, as usually, less than half of what we received from them consisted of canned corn and green beans.

Once, a Bunco group decided to take up food for us.  I do not know how this came about, how they heard about our humble little pantry, or what possessed them to do it.  This was different.  We received some interesting items, all of them at least four and a half years out of date and unable to be used, but it was a curious thing, going through them before tossing them in the garbage.  A carton of Thai coconut lentil soup.  Imported Italian pickled whole garlic cloves.  Lingonberry preserves.  Chia-pepita granola.  A jar of artichoke-infused tapenade.  And from very far back in someone's cabinet, organic corn starch -certified organic, not just your regular old workaday organic.  It was all delivered by a perky lady in a large Pampered Chef bag with handles.

The bag came in handy.

I loved packing things up for families the way I love the grocery store.  I'd put together meal ideas and work with what we had, odd items included, trying to give them something that only marginally relied upon green beans, food that would make them feel human instead of the recipients of a hand-out.  Things they'd have selected themselves on a shopping trip.  I was truly happy when I was doing this.

The food pantry wasn't always a source of joy, though.  When someone else came and packed up her own boxes for a family (I was absent that day), she accidentally left an entire chuck roast sitting on a shelf beside some cans of green beans, and then we had a three-day weekend, and when we returned Monday morning, the stench that greeted us cannot be described.  It was so pervasive that it took nearly an hour to hone in on the source of it, and two days of fans and enzyme sprays and air freshener to make breathing bearable in the office again.  Another caretaker learned that if you're doing a clean-out and throw chicken in the garbage can, it is vitally important to take out the trash before leaving for the weekend.

There was also the paperwork involved, if your agency/organization/entity was to receive federally-supplemented foodstuffs.  In exchange for canned pork, blocks of cheese, chubs of ground beef, and shelf-stable milk, hell to the yes, every family had to be grilled regarding their monthly income, number of individuals in household, whether those kids were all theirs, whether they'd received assistance before, how often they moved, and a host of other very invasive questions.  We put up with it for a few years because what you got in return was worth it, so very worth it, but then we were rendered ineligible to participate because of some technicality, like maybe which direction our building faced, or maybe it was the fact that we don't lock our doors because fire code won't allow it and that means people could technically walk in and steal all the food and so the federal government said we couldn't have it.  It was too risky.

Good riddance to the paperwork, but I could spit nails at the petty ivory-tower dwellers who made these sorts of decisions.  They snatched it right out of the hands of hungry children.

When you run a food pantry, you bump against the hard realities of other peoples' lives.  You learn how the welfare system works and know that while it needs to be fixed, attempts to fix it just make things worse for the least among us, so to speak.  You can't stay comfortably on the other side of town in your wood-floored, mood-lit premium grocery store, perusing walnut grape chicken salad and smoked salmon in the deli case.  Not for long.  Sooner or later, you come back to the pantry and paper bags and cardboard boxes, and acknowledge that with a few turns of rotten luck, you could end up with fifty-two cans of green beans and someone at your house, indirectly questioning your work ethic and life choices.

We are cruel to our poor and our unlucky.  That's why I always smiled when I could put in a box of Pop-Tarts.

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