Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dinner at the Soup Kitchen and Free Groceries from the Food Pantry

The church that is going to be doing the fundraiser for Isaac next month has a food pantry that gives out free groceries once a month.   They also serve a free meal.  They don't call it a soup kitchen, but that's pretty much what it is.  The idea is that you go in, sign up for groceries, then eat a free meal while you're waiting for your turn to get your groceries.  The pastor told me that they serve about 120 families each month, so it takes awhile to put together the box of groceries for each family.  What you get is based on your household size.

I decided to go because, for one thing, I can use some groceries.  It's the end of the month, which is when many people have already used up their food stamps (the $16 in food stamps I get each  month is long gone by now) and when many people have already used up any cash benefits they get at the beginning of the month (no matter how carefully I try to budget, I always seem to be a bit short of cash by now).  For another thing, I thought it would be good to get involved with the church a little, to get to know some people there, since they are doing this fundraiser for Isaac.  I talked Mike into going with me because I felt very anxious about going alone and I didn't have anyone else to ask to go with me.

It's not exactly the first time I've gotten food from a food pantry.  Mike's brother is a pastor and his church operates a food pantry and he used to bring us food sometimes.  But he brought it to us.  We didn't have to go there and wait in line for it.  And we used to get food from a program called Angel Food Ministries, when my teenage nephew lived with us for a while a couple years back.  Angel Food Ministries is no longer in existence, which is too bad because it was a good program.  It wasn't exactly a food pantry, but was a program that purchased large amounts of food in bulk and then sold them to people in need for a very low cost.  We spent something like $40 for a box of food that would include things like some chicken, some pork chops, some hamburger, some rice, a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, some potatoes, some oranges, some apples, some frozen corn, some frozen green beans, a box of cereal, a box of pancake mix, and a box of brownie mix.  It was supposed to feed a family of four for one week, I think.  Anyone could order as many food boxes as they wanted, there were no income guidelines to meet.  Food was distributed at local churches.

This was the first time I've ever eaten at a soup kitchen or anyplace serving free meals like that, though.  I think it was done in a nice way.  It's set up like a cafeteria line and you go through and get your meal.  Last  night they were serving pulled pork sandwiches (I passed on the sandwich so I don't eat meat; they did not offer any type of vegetarian alternative), carrot and celery sticks with ranch dip, melon, potato chips, and a big sugar cookie for dessert.  The dining area has big round tables that seat about eight people and you sit down with your meal and church members come around and serve you drinks at your table.  They had Kool-Aid, milk, coffee, or ice water.  Church members also bus the tables when people are done eating.

They also had live dinner music.  There was a trio of men playing and singing gospel music while people ate. 

I took Isaac with  me, of course.  He did really well.  He went right under the table and lay down.  At one point he was really stretched out under there.  I had to tell him to move closer to me because he was hogging all the foot room.  I thought the music might be a bit loud for him but he seemed OK with it.  At one point a woman came and sat down across the table from me and she didn't even realize there was a dog under the table until another woman sitting next to her pointed it out to her.  She was tickled to look under the table and see a dog lying by her feet.

Everyone liked Isaac, of course.  We saw the pastor as soon as we walked in and she recognized me right away.  I guess they don't get many people with service dogs.  She remarked that Isaac as much calmer or better behaved or something than he was when she visited my apartment.  I said yes, this is how he behaves when he's working, and he knows the difference between working and not working.  He was behaving badly when she visited, really, but he did climb in her lap and lick her face and I don't think she really wanted any doggie kisses.  Isaac thinks everyone loves his kisses, though.  I was glad she got to see him in "work mode," though.  And he really was good.

I had to wait a long time to get my food.  They give out  numbers when you first arrive and then call people in ten at a time to complete some paperwork and then get your food.  I got there at 5:00 pm and got number 94.  It was 7:00 pm before I got called in.

I thought it was handled in a really nice, respectful way.  People do have to fill out a form, but it's a short form, just name and address and how many members in the household, and then sign something saying your income is below the amount listed in the chart on the form, indicating you qualify for services.  They asked to see some sort of identification but not proof of income.  I guess they figure there aren't a lot of people that want to wait in line for two hours for free food if they don't really need it.  I think they are right.  There was a woman in line in front of me that didn't have her ID with her and they said that was OK, just bring it next time, and went ahead and served her.

It was more respectful, more dignified, than applying for food stamps or even subsidized housing.  The church members working there were all really nice.  It's still sort of humiliating, though.  When we finished eating, we sat at the table for a while, then went downstairs to wait by the room where you get your food.  There were not many chairs so people ended up sitting on the floor in the hallway to wait.  Sitting on the floor waiting for over an hour for free food is just sort of humiliating.  It's humbling, at least.

There was a little boy, ten years old, and his mom waiting next to me.  The little boy asked to pet Isaac and I said OK.  I let everyone pet him there that asked.  I didn't know who, other than the volunteers working there, belonged to the church and who didn't and I wanted to be friendly and make a good impression with all the church members since they are going to be doing this fundraiser for Isaac.  The little boy asked me about Isaac and I told him some of the things Isaac helps me with, like picking things up if I drop them and taking clothes out of the dryer.  The little boy looked at his mom and said, "Maybe we should get a dog like that!"  Isaac really liked the little boy, of course.  He ended up rolling over and getting a belly rub, looking like a very dignified service dog, the silly doggie.  He did demonstrate how he picks up my car keys very nicely, unlike the time at Hobby Lobby when I tried to show a little boy how he does that and he ended up making me look like an idiot.  The boy was suitably impressed.

Most of the people I saw there were older folks, but there were some younger people and a few families with kids.  I thought about what it would have been like when I was a kid, to go to some church for a free meal and to wait in line for a couple of hours to get free groceries.  I really can't imagine it.  I also thought about what it would be like to have to live like that all the time, you know, to eat at soup kitchens regularly, to stay at shelters or things like that.  I just can't imagine it.  And I know how lucky that makes me.

I was asked twice if I was training Isaac, asked three times what he does for me, asked once what kind of service dog he was (which is sort of the same as asking what he does for me), and asked once if he was a Seeing Eye dog.  That was the first time I've ever been asked if he was a Seeing Eye dog.  I said, "No, he is a service dog."  And then I couldn't help myself, I added, "I can see all right."

Here's something you might not know.  A Seeing Eye dog is a specific brand name.  It's a dog trained by a specific program as a guide dog for the blind.  Not all guide dogs for the blind are Seeing Eye dogs.  It's like an Oreo is a cream-filled cookie but not all cream-filled cookies are Oreos.  And of course, not all cookies are cream-filled cookies.

Anyway.  I know you can't always tell by looking at someone if they are disabled or what their disability is, but I don't think it's likely anyone would mistake me for being blind.

I tried to be extra polite.  A couple of the people that asked about what he does for me were volunteer church members and I may speak to the pastor about it.  They did not mean to be rude or intrusive, I know, but I did not want to explain what my disability is and why I have a service dog while I was in line to get my free food.  I also hate that I felt like I had to be extra polite because they were giving me free food.  Like I somehow have fewer rights, like I have to give up some of my privacy or self-respect in that situation.  And they didn't tell me I had fewer rights or that I was less entitled to my privacy there than I would be at the grocery store, that's just how it felt to me.  And I think that's common.  The experience of receiving charity engenders those feelings in people in this society.

I want to stress how nice everyone was.  They didn't mean to make me feel that way.  They didn't mean to be inappropriate.  They were curious about the doggie.  One of the men that has helping to give out food said something about they didn't have any dog bones there and he seemed genuinely sad about that.  I assured him that Isaac has plenty of dog food and treats and bones at home.  People remarked about how pretty he is, how well-behaved he was, how calm he was, how they wished their dog was so well-behaved.  One lady insisted on helping to carry my food out to the car, even though I said Mike could carry it for me.  They were really helpful and kind and caring people.

It was an interesting experience.  It made me think a lot, which is always good.  And I was really happy with how well Isaac did.  He was patient and quiet and well-behaved.  And I got free groceries - sweet corn on the cob, peaches, oranges, yogurt, peanut butter, soup, oatmeal, grapefruit juice, vegetable oil, frozen blueberries (three pounds!), and a frozen pizza.

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