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Supermarket Sweep

This essay originally aired on WMRA radio.


Like a deranged dietician I put a jar of Ragu Meat Sauce in a box for one family and save the small can of Vienna Sausages for the other. I look around again. There’s an abundance of cranberry sauce — probably from the last holiday drive — but no protein in sight.

I’m combing the warehouse of the Thomas Jefferson Branch of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Network, pulling together meals for people who are hungry. I sift through donations, trying to match soup with crackers, rice with beans, peanut butter and jelly. It’s gotten harder. Need has skyrocketed.

The two women, who along with their kids, carpooled to the Harris Street warehouse wait patiently while I continue the hunt. It’s not a newsflash that people are struggling all over the country. But these are our neighbors. And they need help.

Last July the branch gave out some 1,300 pounds of food to walk-in clients. Nearly 4,800 pounds were distributed during the same period this year. That’s a 269% increase.

People’s salaries aren’t covering necessities. They’re being forced to choose between paying rent and eating. Or paying for health care and eating. Or putting gas in their cars. A lot more families are struggling. Thirty-eight percent of the Food Bank Network clients are kids.

And many of the shelves at our food bank are empty.

There’s been a drop in donations by grocery manufacturers. Where they used to donate much of their damaged stock now they’re selling it to discount salvage stores. And–despite increasing need–the Department of Agriculture’s nutritional contribution to food pantries has declined over the past four years. Which, in light of the fact that we’re spending billions a month in Iraq, is pretty sad.

I keep working on the women’s boxes. It’s taking forever.  Not everything that comes in should go out. There are jars with pregnant lids and cans with expired use-by dates. Plus, weird stuff’s donated. Like diet dinners. And packages of foreign delicacies without English subtitles. And cases of Australian Vegemite; a spread with an odor so intense I Googled it and found myself watching You Tube videos of Americans gagging on the Aussie staple.

I finally get enough to last the two families a couple of days and bring the cartons over. They contain a ragtag assortment that includes cereal but no powdered milk. Pop Tarts and Little Debbie’s but no fresh fruit. Pasta but no cheese.

Before they leave, I hand the moms a schedule of soup kitchens and the addresses of food pantries that we stock. It’s important information. The Thomas Jefferson Branch is mostly a food clearinghouse for local charities. It’s only set up to give assistance to individual clients once. The problem is that when we’re squeezed so are the member agencies. Still, the women thank me. So do their children.

People are treated with respect at the Thomas Jefferson Food Bank and I’m proud to volunteer there. But the branch desperately needs more — more groceries, more food drives, and more financial contributions.

The door squeaks open and a father enters with his son. Our eyes meet. We need some help, he says.

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