Friday, October 12, 2012

Hunger in fields of plenty

I’m the fourth-to-last person in line at the local food bank; it’s my first trip here. A friend told me about it months ago when I mentioned that I was having trouble fitting food into my budget.

“Go to the food bank, dude! Swallow your pride and go down there and get some food!”

The food bank is sponsored weekly by the community church down town. It offers essential food items such as fresh fruits and vegetables and some canned goods.

I’ve observed the lines of people who wait each Wednesday morning to get their handout and wondered what it must feel like to be standing there because you could not earn enough money to buy food.

I’ve also wondered how anyone could afford to miss work to stand in line at 10 a.m. to get food. Today, I found out. Today, I don’t have work because of the season’s first rain. The ranch boss said to wait until it blows over. I’m glad he felt this way because I really needed to get to the church food bank. I have absolutely nothing but rice to eat, and no money to buy groceries, at least not until next week.

Occasionally, as I drive by the church, I recognize the familiar faces of people who live in the neighborhood waiting their turn for a shot at assembling a bag or two of groceries. “I’m like you, brother,” I’ve thought to myself, “but I don’t have the guts to admit that I can’t afford to buy groceries right now.”

I don’t alarm too easily when my stomach starts to growl. I’ve gone hungry before. I know how it feels to go without food for a few days. I don’t like it but at least I know that I’ll survive. I’ve done it without too much grief or worry but this time it’s different.

As a ranch hand, I’m working harder than ever and I need the calories to burn. I can’t go too long without a meal, I need adequate nourishment to work as hard as I do.

Work has been much harder to find in the last four years, especially for a Boomer like myself who may be seen as irrelevant or too old or too costly to be considered a safe bet for prospective employers. 

I have in a sense put my hand to the plow and found work as a farm and ranch hand. Apparently, there’s plenty of work in agriculture and the military. Beyond that, however, you almost have to be an entrepreneur, create your own job, to stabilize in this economy. 

Much has been batted about regarding the lack of jobs. Blame has been cast here and there and promises made, yet the fact remains that jobs are harder to come by now, and not just for Boomers. Young people too, recent college graduates like my daughter, are having a tough time finding jobs.

I’ve been in publishing most of my adult life and, while employed, lived well and was paid well, at least well enough to have food in the cupboards, money in the bank, and places to go. During downturns, I’ve always managed to scrape enough money together by taking on odd jobs: window washing, landscape maintenance and installation, and lately farm labor.

This is the first time that I can remember not having enough money to buy food for more than a day or two.

When the economy tanked in 2008, employment in the U.S. took a sharp revolutionary turn away from what we had until then known: Plenty of opportunities with full-time hours and lucrative salary, benefits, insurance, vacation and holiday time, the whole package. It seems most of those opportunities have disappeared.

I’ve adjusted to the rigors of mostly day labor jobs to get by these past four years, and have received some benefits from them. 

“You look really good,” a friend told me recently, “really good.” It must be the ranch work, being out doors, getting plenty of fresh air and exercise and a fairly good diet of local foods, I told her. As much as I like working in the fields, I added, it’s kicking my butt. I’m getting too old for this. 

“Looks like whatever you’re doing is working for you.”

Well, thanks, I said, it’s working ok for me. I stayed mum about the fact that I’ve been eating less, which also helps keep the weight off, not because I want to but because my budget won’t allow too many extras at the moment.

The last four years have been a roller coaster ride of plenty versus scarcity, broken promises and relationships brought on by job loss, financial hardships and debt, the sorts of things that will easily bring a person down over an extended period of time.

I’ve managed to stay mostly positive, scaling down my expectations, adjusting to the losses, and building where possible new hopes while learning to be grateful for what I do have. I do ok with these things as long as there’s food to eat.

Few things will bring a man down more quickly than the lack of food. It’s most demoralizing when work is expected and you have little or nothing to run on. I’ve always thought of hunger pangs, which aren’t really hunger, as positive motivation, which they are but not when they continue unabated day after day.

Thankfully, there are good people in the world. “Would you like a coffee?” asked the owner of the local coffee shop this morning where I had just been speaking with the boss in front of her store. Her coffee shop is the best meeting place in town.

I wanted to clear things with the boss about taking the morning off so I could take care of a “personal matter.” I didn’t tell him I needed to go to the food bank. Sure, he said, take the whole day off, it’s going to rain anyhow. That’s fine with me, I need the break.

When I went back inside the coffee shop to say hello, the barista who owns the shop asked if I would like a cup. “No, thank you,” I said, a big lie. 

“Did you already have coffee?” she asked suspiciously, as though I might have already brewed one of my own or gone to the neighboring competitor down the street.

“No,” I answered awkward for a second, “I’d love a coffee but…I…uh…." I lowered my voice, "I can’t afford it right now.”

“That’s ok,” she said, “it’s on me today.” She poured my favorite coffee, two shots in a small cup of dark roast, and gave me a scone. It was pure bliss to sit and watch the season’s first dark clouds burst into a downpour onto the street in front of the cafe.

The favorite saying here, we live in paradise, comes to mind. 

There have been others as equally kind and generous but a person can only go so far drawing from charitable accounts. I'd rather be on the giving end of things.

You wouldn’t think there would be many hungry people, if any, in this small town of 3,500 residents, but there are plenty of them. Some come from neighboring towns and the man who calls the numbers to let people into the food bank announces other sites throughout the county that offer food during the week.

A woman I know from town, a waitress at a local restaurant who lives in a modest apartment above the tavern, leans over and whispers knowingly, “The food bank in Morro Bay is the best one for food.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I say.

I recognize a couple of barflies who live off small pensions and drink cheap beer at the pub, a few laborers who by most appearances seem to be doing well but apparently need the help, as I do, filling their shelves with food. A goodly number of those who wait in line are elderly, who smile knowingly when I pass by. 

I’m happy to be here only so that I can grab some much-needed food items, not for the social aspect, which I wasn't expecting. 

I feel awkward and hope that no one close to me sees me on the way out. But it’s too late for that; I know so many people here already who are close. I’m surprised at how many I do know.

I’ve been putting off going to the food bank for months now, scraping here and there, always managing to pick up a few extra dollars so that I can go to the market.

Food items and gas have gone up so much in the last few months, however, my budget allows me to do little but pay rent. I scramble and hope to make ends meet for the rest. I’m fortunate, in more than one sense, to be working on a ranch.

First, it’s good physical labor and second, there’s lots to eat on a ranch.

I’ve been dining in good fashion up until very recently. In fact, my boss handed me a fine slab of venison at the end of the day last week from a recent kill, which I sliced, pan seared, then cooked with a can of Bush’s black beans, fresh chiles, pepper, garlic and onion.

I also had some avocado that had fallen from the trees at the ranch, which occasionally I get to bring home, and sliced that fresh onto my venison chile.

I remembered as I was about to sit down that I had a 24-ounce bottle of Firestone’s double-barrel ale, a local brew and as fine a beer you can get anywhere, sitting in the fridge. I’d forgotten about it. It had been there for a while. I was glad that I remembered it, and more glad that it was still there. 

I opened it, felt that touch of paradise everyone here likes to talk about, and sat down to a meal fit for anyone with a good appetite.

In a sense, a good food sense, this area is paradise. 

The avocados have been like manna, fruit from heaven, and oranges that have fallen sweet to the ground, have kept me from going totally hungry. 

This is the first time that I can remember, though, when I didn’t have enough cash in my pocket or funds in the bank or aid of friends to have food to get through the day. It’s an unsettling feeling.

The first rain begins to pour down hard on the little awning above our heads as we wait our turns at the food bank. About 50-60 people mill around the steps, dodge the rain, or sit in chairs, and wait for their turns to be called inside.

Each person takes a number assigned to them. The number rotates in order of ten so that everyone gets a turn at being the first in line. Newcomers like me must sign in and get a letter. I get the letter “D.” When I come back next week, I’ll get my own number, and a chance to be first in line.

“There’s isn’t much to choose from this time,” someone whispers, “but the third week of the month is the best day to come. That’s when they bring stuff from the USDA.”

The federal government offers these surplus foods to the needy and apparently there’s plenty of good to be had from them, proteins, canned fruits and vegetables, cheese.

I can see through the door some of the food items that have been placed upon tables set up in horseshoe fashion, where a line of people inspect and select from the goods.  Mostly perishable items such as bananas, onions, spinach and sprouts. 

“I feel bad for people who have to be last, the newcomers,” says the woman who sits at the sign-up table to the man who calls out the numbers. “But,” she adds, “I guess it’s like a right of passage. You gotta pay your dues to get to the front of the line.”

It seems a fair comment, even though I don't like it. The only way I'll get to the front of the line at the food bank will be to pay my dues. I don’t think much of my place in line until it’s my turn to go in and most of the good food stuff has been picked through and taken.

I grab a few onions, a container of drying, wilting sprouts, a bundle of wet spinach, a tomato and some bruised bananas. 

The rain pounds heavily upon the awning cover that amplifies the raindrops into a roar above our heads. “It’s sure a good thing to have this rain,” someone shouts above the din. “We need it. How long’s it been?” §

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