by Maureen McNair
Every winter for many years, the volunteers at our Hillcrest Interfaith Shelter Network site, which hosts homeless guests for two weeks, prepare for our guests’ arrival by watching an instructional video. The video does not tell volunteers how to organize meals or set up cots we borrow. Instead, the video features homeless guests from prior shelters who speak to us directly about how to engage them in conversation.
Guests want to be be greeted in a friendly way. They do not want to answer personal questions about why they are in the circumstances in which they ﬁnd themselves.
It is this video that has guided me in how how I speak to food pantry clients. I don’t ask anyone why they and their family need free food. If someone asks for food, we give it to them.
During the most diﬃcult times of the pandemic when no vaccines were available, any conversation with pantry guests was pretty limited for health and safety reasons. It was pretty diﬃcult to develop any kind of relationship.
Volunteers and pantry guests continue to work outdoors and wear masks. But, now that most volunteers and, I assume, at least some of our guests are vaccinated, there is more ease of conversation. So, some people I have seen in passing for many months talk openly about themselves now.
I am surprised at how many of our pantry guests have good jobs. I expected people who were unemployed or under-employed to come to our pantry. And they do. I expected small business owners to come to our pantry, especially since most of their businesses were shut down for many months. And small business owners do come to our pantry every Saturday.
Some small business owners have reopened, but still need food assistance. At least one former business owner said they lost their business during the pandemic, but with our help, are able to hold onto their house.
What has surprised me is how many people with what seem like good jobs come through our pantry line. A court interpreter. A civil service employee at North Island. A public school teacher’s aid. These are all decent jobs with decent beneﬁts. Paychecks and beneﬁts continued throughout the pandemic.
What I hear from people is that the cost of food is too high, especially if they have children to feed.
You can all be proud of the variety and high quality of food we give away to help out these families. I know the need is real. Back when I taught elementary school in Chula Vista, I remember visiting a second grade student at the public campground where he lived in a small trailer with his family. When I arrived, the kids were eating dinner on an outdoor picnic table. Dinner was a shared bag of Oreo cookies.
This past Saturday, we gave everyone a big variety of nutritional food — artisan bread, a tray of frozen meat or chicken, a bag of dry goods, an ample bag of food donated from Starbucks, and three bags of fresh produce — tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, red bell peppers, corn on the cob, cantaloupes, and oranges.
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