Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Food Pantries, Humility, and Vera

The time period between my April paycheck and my May paycheck (okay, both are really my monthly allowances, heh), sucked. And I mean it super sucked. Having to wait anywhere from 4-5 weeks to get cash money to live is not the way to go. It's even worse when you pay almost all of your bills and buy some groceries, you don't have enough money to pay a $4.06 electric bill due the day before your next paycheck.

Welcome to hitting rock bottom.

For years, I have struggled with my finances. I would save money, then spend money, then repay myself, and the cycle would continue. I spent money on really obnoxious things over the years, from clothes to organizational items (purses, wallets, backpacks, loose leaf notebooks, etc.); from tons and tons of fast food to weight loss items (program memberships, food, exercise equipment, etc.). And what do I have to show for any of it? Not much (thanks to my epic notoriety to trash and large things).

I knew I had to stop the skid of being constantly broke, but I found out I couldn't do it by myself. There is a lot of guilt and shame that goes with that admission.

In the meantime, as I would contemplate what I needed to fix in order to get on a better track, I found myself broke and hungry. That is not a place you want to find yourself in. And with some many folks helping me out over the past six months, I needed to take matters into my own hands.

I gathered up as many spoons as I could, and made the trek to a food pantry for emergency food assistance.

Prior to this, I had been extremely fortunate to avoid having to utilize a food pantry. But at this point, since it was early May, I had to find a place that would provide me the assistance I needed.
On May 7 and May 15, I went to a food pantry (two different ones) to get me by until May 20, which was payday. The generosity at each location was wonderful. One specialized in Kosher food and hygiene items; the other was a neighborhood branch of a regional food bank.

I learned a great deal from these places.

Wait, Vera: don't you have to be dirt poor in order to get food assistance?

Not necessarily. Allow me to explain what I learned.

Note: the following information is only applicable to folks in the United States of America. Please refer to your nation's governmental programs (if you don't live in the USA) for emergency food assistance, if applicable.

When looking for emergency food assistance (whether it's a place to obtain a hot meal or to obtain about 3-5 days worth of food groceries), it starts by searching for food assistance in your area online. I will use my area, Greater Cleveland, as an example. For Cleveland, when you type in a search engine text bar "food assistance in Cleveland," you will get a few dozen links to various places in the area that provide emergency food necessities.

This is where it gets a bit complicated.

You can't just pick a place and show up, asking for food. More than likely, the program officials will turn you away.

So, how do you get food help if they you away? Aren't they obligated to serve their community?

Good question. Define "community."

Well, where you live.

Heh, food pantries and hot meal centers actually do serve their communities, based on need and where you live. In Cleveland, the pantries have their communities mapped out; some by Zone Improvement Project (or ZIP) code (like 44120), others by streets within certain ZIP codes.

You have got to be kidding me.

Nope; it's a checks and balances system designed to make sure folks who qualify based on their address gets served.

That's the first step. The second step is where you stand along the federal poverty guideline.

In the United States' 48 contiguous (or connected) states and the District of Columbia, the 2015 federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $24,250 a year (courtesy of this link). Why does this matter? In Cleveland, most food pantries and hot meal centers serve folks who stand up to 200% of the federal poverty guideline. Meaning, these facilities will help a family of four whose total income is at $48,500 a year or less, depending on the facility.

Okay. I found a food pantry that can serve my family based on my address, and the family income is under the guideline. Now can I get the free food?

A couple of more items to cover, and you can be on your way.

One is to provide proof of need. A family of four in Cleveland, for example, needs to provide evidence of the following: government-issued identification, proof of residency, proof of income sources, and proof of identification of each member of your household. It helps expedite the service for the facility and gets you and your family the food assistance needed.

The other is to know when to arrive at a food pantry or a hot meal center. Say a food pantry opens their doors at 2:00pm and they are open until either 4:00pm or all the items are given away. The best thing to do is to show up early and wait in line. Most folks will line up about 30-40 minutes before the doors open. The majority of these facilities operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Sweet! Who needs to do grocery shopping when I can just hit up a food pantry every week, right?

Can I smack you?

What?

You know that checks and balances system I mentioned earlier? Most facilities only allow you to visit once every thirty (30) days, so they can reach as many hungry folks as possible. And they do so by checking your identification and logging in on a chart what day you visited that specific food pantry.

Can I go to more than just one food pantry in a month?

You can, yes. However, you need to check with each food pantry you want to visit to see who they serve and to see if you qualify.

I have a friend who makes a ton of money, but just lost their job due to an unexpected layoff. How can they get emergency food help?

Great question. Most facilities will help anyone demonstrating an urgent need. For your friend to prove their situation, in addition to providing needed documentation, they would also need to show proof of job loss (usually a letter from the former employer works). Have your friend contact the food pantry nearest to them to ask for specifics.

Are there food pantries that don't require a financial hardship?

I did find this organization through a friend called Smart Choice Food, where once a month, this food distributor sells boxes of food items at discounted prices at various locations. No income restrictions with this program, however the services are not available throughout the entire country. I have yet to try this program, but I hope to do so in July.

What else did you learn, Vera?

With the food pantries experience, I learned some more things. One was my budget wasn't working. Turns out it hadn't been working for years. I have a tendency to spend more money if I don't have much of it to begin with, and I spend less if I see that I have money in the bank (I'm odd like that). So I grouped my grocery budget and other variables, like gas for my car and the occasional treat, into one lump miscellaneous pot. It has worked for this May-June run so far. Another was to stop spending money on items I don't need right away (biggest example is clothes; body fluctuations will do that). I have enough clothes now to last me into October, and should I lose weight and/or inches by October's paycheck, I can reevaluate my clothing needs and see what I can afford to buy. A third lesson was actually more of a reminder: get them coupons! I plan on writing down the name brand items I purchase the most, and research for deals online. Places like Retail Me Not, Smart Source, Red Plum, Coupons.com, and the Krazy Koupon Lady (really not feeling on the use of "Krazy" in the name, but I digress) have deals that you can either print or plug in to your store's reward card program. And finally, to pay it forward. Volunteer, donate, and/or advocate for someone who is unable to for themselves are examples of ways I show my appreciation in the help I have received.
You don't have to feel shame or guilt for utilizing a food pantry or a hot meal center. These facilities exist because there are so many people, just like you, struggling with so many things at once. The fact that, in this day and age, impoverished and even middle-class Americans have to decide, on the daily, to either buy groceries or to buy medicine. It sucks. However, the good news is that you do have options when it comes to emergency food assistance.

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