Twitter was awash in another pile-on the other day, this time on the subject of food pantries.
The person responsible for today’s pile-on just goes by her first name, Didi.
Didi, based on her bio and profile photo, is a conservative Catholic woman who’s had a bad face lift. She wants us to know that she used to work at a food pantry but doesn’t anymore because the poor don’t deserve it, and she thinks this is Democrats’ fault:
Didi responded to any criticism about the food pantry with the expected grace, calling people names. I wasn’t really interested in her responses, but in those of the others in the conversation. A huge number of people were excited to complain about the undeserving poor who supposedly “bop on in” to food pantries in designer clothes with a great car. I doubt any of these people have worked in a food pantry either. Lots of these commentators were angry that poor people are known to go to several different food pantries to get things to eat, on top of their EBT benefits. They were also upset that the poor sometimes don’t eat every bite of their food pantry boxes, but instead trade it for things or even sell it.
I don’t think I can get through to people like Didi, but for the sake of anyone who is actually listening, I have a few things to say about the food pantry.
First of all, I doubt “Didi” is telling the truth in the first place. She doesn’t seem like the type to volunteer at a food pantry. She seems like the type to donate an expired can to the parish Christmas food drive to make herself feel better while telling people that food drives encourage dependence– if she really is a Catholic woman named Didi and not another troll like that one from the other week. But I could be wrong.
Secondly, if the evets happened at all, of course they were in good clothes. Most poor people know you have to dress up and look respectable when you go to get assistance. There’s a certain look that needs to be curated. If you look dirty or scruffy, they’ll judge you or give you a hard time, so you wear your neatest slacks or your good dress. If you have kids, you especially want your kids to be dressed to the nines, because poor people with kids are under a lot of scrutiny. Busybodies like to call Social Services on parents of children who look dirty. So they have their children take a careful shower, and they dress them in their Sunday best before going to the food pantry. Are they supposed to dress them in a flour sack and streak dirt on their cheeks to make the volunteer feel better?
As for the brand new cars, I don’t even know where to start. Well, I do, I think she’s not telling the truth. But let’s pretend somebody shows up at the food pantry with a nice-looking car. How did they get it? Apparently they used to have money and spent it on a car. Now they’re poor. They’ve lost their job or had to spend all their savings on a medical bill. Are they supposed to trade in the new car for an old jalopy that doesn’t work, so they can spend hundreds of dollars trying to get it running again? Would that make the volunteer feel better?
As for the fact that poor people “bop” into the food pantry without modesty… what did she expect them to do? It’s embarrassing to go to the food pantry. A day when you have to go to the food pantry is a bad day. You save face by pretending you’re going to the grocery store. You walk in with the same attitude you have when you’re picking up a few things on the way home. Yes, they should mind their manners, but what attitude would make this volunteer happy? Should they cry tears of humble thanks over a cardboard box full of off-brand macaroni and canned spinach? How sadistic do you have to be to demand that kind of performance?
As for the notion that they’re at the food pantry because they don’t have a job, it’s simply a red herring. Most of the people who show up at a food pantry have jobs, they just don’t have enough to make ends meet. The rules about who’s eligible for a food pantry vary a lot state by state, but they’re designed to be a higher income than the maximum for SNAP benefits, to catch the people who fall through the cracks. For example, you’re eligible to get food from the food pantry in Ohio if you’re under 200% of the federal poverty line for your household size, while the limit for SNAP benefits is 130%. Why, exactly, the federal poverty line is so artificially low that you can make twice that and still need a box of donated food to feed your family now and then is a rant for another day.
And then the allegation that people who go to the food pantry trade or sell the items they’re given: well, it’s true. And it’s a good thing.
Sometimes people sell them for a small amount of cash. Sometimes they swap a box or a can for another item they really need or want like a roll of toilet paper or a bar of soap, or even a cigarette. Sometimes they give the extra to a family bigger than theirs who already ate everything in their box. Sometimes they take the items they aren’t going to eat down to our local Catholic Worker House, the Friendship Room, and donate them to give away to anybody who didn’t get a food pantry box because it makes them feel part of a community. Sometimes they bring a can they’re not going to eat to the little free grocery cupboard and swap it for a can or box they will eat, because it makes them feel less like beggars. This is a good thing.
The problem with being poor, is that you don’t have the stuff you need. Giving poor people stuff is a way to fill that need. If you give someone ten cans of soup, you might have given them ten meals. You might also have given them five meals, three cans to barter for household items they need, and two cans to donate so they don’t feel so helpless. That’s not wrong.
A society with a lot of cheap calories circulating among its poorest members, is a way better society than one where the poor are in desperate hunger.
A society where the poor have things to barter is better than one where they have nothing at all.
Anyway, that’s my two cents on food pantries, after this week’s pile-on. I can’t wait to see what the next one will be.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.