My son spent last night at my mother’s home. Earlier on Saturday, I brought him to my mom at her church in south Minneapolis, where she volunteers at a local food bank distribution site on Saturday mornings. She’s brought my son there several times in the past when she keeps him overnight. He’s 5, so while he’s picked up on the concept that they are giving food away for free, it hasn’t dawned on him why these folks are doing so. There’ll be plenty of time for that in the future…
Anyway, I spent a few minutes conversing with my mom and some of her friends about the project. The size of the crowd waxes & wanes from week to week, but usual attendance ranges from 150-200. Over the last few months the number of attendees has been growing. This week there was at least 260 folks that took part. As has been reported on the local news recently, the tanking economy has both increased the number of people needed to use food banks while at the same time reducing the number of people who donate to those same food banks.
From my limited observation it was quite a mixed crowd. Young single parents and/or families, minorities (latino & asian), white senior citizens… you get the idea. Many of the elderly ladies I saw there were well-groomed & dressed. I can only speculate, but my guess is that many (if not all) of them are on fixed incomes (pensions, social security, etc), and the spike in food prices is hitting them even harder than those of us who are still working and have the ability to work more hours or find a better-paying job.
The way this event works is that people queue up and each are given a bag. Depending on what kinds and amounts of food are available each week, people can either fill up on a given item or are limited to 1 or 2 of them. Items like bread, milk, yogurt and sweets are considered desirable items and are usually limited, whereas items like potatoes, onions, and bulk raw vegetables are not. Each person goes through once and fills up a bag, and then they have to wait for each person to make it through the line before anyone gets to go through a second time.
There are those who try to buck the system, of course. My mom and some of her co-workers were keeping an eye on a group of frequent attendees who were trying to run their normal scam. Some of the older guests using the food bank have trouble lifting the bags full of food, so the church provides helpers to carry their bags for them as they progress through the line. This one group of cheats goes through the line and then empties part or all of their bag and then they ‘volunteer’ to help the elderly folks go through the line. This is all well & good, but when they get to the limited supply items, they take one for the person they are helping, and one again for themselves… double-dipping before others get a crack at these things. The main group of these scammers happen to be Latino, and they were busted by a Latino volunteer. When he confronted them, their reply was something along the lines of “hey, we’re all Latinos, can’t you cut us a break?” He was unimpressed with that since, as he pointed out, this particular group of Latinos was screwing other Latinos where were waiting their turn in line like everyone else.
One other thing I noticed is that pretty much everyone who came to pick up the food drove there. A testament to how pervasive the need to drive is in this culture, both in terms of psyche and economic necessity, I guess. Since no one is giving away free gas, one might as well fill the tank and get the free food when you can. If the economy keeps going in the direction it appears to be going, more and more of these folks will be showing up via bus, bike or on foot. This is doable for those in the inner cities, but poor folks in the burbs will be in a much worse position, considering that those towns were designed to be navigated by car from the ground up.