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For the least of us

In August of 2012, my wife and I found ourselves unable to pay for basic necessities. As a result, we discovered how local food pantries play a role in the lives of the needy.
The Eastern Ave CRC food pantry in action

The Eastern Ave CRC food pantry in action /Russ Pontius

To visit the pantry

514 Eastern Avenue SE
Grand Rapids, MI  49503

Pantry opens every Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.

Eastern Avenue CRC in the morning

Eastern Avenue CRC in the morning /Russ Pontius

The food truck and pantry patrons

The food truck and pantry patrons /Russ Pontius

It’s a light blue-gold dawn in Grand Rapids and I have a hand full of quarters in my pocket. The streets are eerily vacant this Saturday morning, and aside from a few errant cars and dog walkers, there are few signs of life. It lends my drive an air of loneliness, which I don't often feel in this city. Maybe it’s just in my head, because I've taken this kind of trip before, and I told myself that last time would be that: the last time.

The Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is inviting, busy and green. Volunteers pull crates and cardboard boxes packed with food from a truck stationed at the basement entrance. I watch the families walk inside the waiting area in the basement, and I'm relieved to see that we will be allowed inside. The last food truck I attended in Kentwood kept us outside in the church parking lot. We waited in the snow for hours while volunteers prepared. I take a breath, remind myself that my wife and I are no longer desperate, and go inside.

The basement of the church is a tiny room with cream walls and grey linoleum. Chairs are set up in classroom fashion with a rolling wooden pulpit in front of a whiteboard with the words "Hombres / Mujeres de Dios" written on it. The room, like the people in it, is humble.

All here are quiet, eyes cast down. When I enter, a dozen heads give me a once over and quickly turn away. We all keep to ourselves, because we all know why we're here. Sitting in this place is an admission of our inability to provide for ourselves and our families. Those who think we are shameless have never seen us here, trying with all our might to make ourselves even more invisible than we already are.

I walk to the head of the room to get my number. Numbers are par for the course. Step in line, get a ticket with a number on it, and wait for the number to be called. My number is 72, which means I've come late. This is a bad thing, because supplies may be limited, and I may not get enough food to take home. Some of these people have been waiting here since 6 a.m. to ensure their place.

At 8 a.m. Tito Venegas, the Bilingual Worship Leader, begins a sermon in English and Spanish. We aren't forced to stay; we can leave at any time and return at 9 a.m. when we are told they will begin calling numbers. I stay anyway, despite my spiritual ambiguity. As Venegas speaks, the crowd's anxiety begins to leak out. We all relax. It starts to feel like it’s okay that we are here, that we aren't invaders or social parasites. There is recognition here that we are still human, and that perhaps, poverty does not need to define us.

As Tito's sermon concludes, people rise and loose lines begin to form. An elderly Hispanic man with a newsboy cap begins calling numbers like a carnival barker. The first 10 are sent in, handing him their tickets as they go. With chaos growing as workers quicken their pace, I slip inside where I can see the pantry at work. The distribution room is a cacophony of voices and the sounds of boxes tearing, thumping flatly as they are cast aside into heaping piles. The room is set up in a large square, with factory conveyor belts laid out to carry the food bins from one station to the next. More than a dozen volunteers scurry to fill bins with fresh produce, bread, milk and rice. Others prepare cash boxes to accept payment.

Each pantry in Grand Rapids runs under its own set of rules. Go to them long enough and they become routine, predictable. Most charge nothing, but restrict item number and usage by requiring identification and proof of residency. Paperwork is a preventative measure to ensure no one uses the pantry too often, forcing those in need to frequent a circuit of pantries. Others, like the food truck I went to in Kentwood last November, charge nothing and ask no questions.

Eastern Avenue CRC has a different formula, one I’ve never seen before. They charge a small fee for their goods, generally only 25 cents to a dollar per item.

As I wait for my number to be called, I watch, wondering what might be left once they get to 72. I note, with some despair, that bags of potatoes ran out around number 30.

I remind myself that I don't need the food as much now to calm down. My wife recently found work in her field, and I’ve got a part time job. The problem is that we’re still recovering, coming up short all too often, and we’re still living one car problem away from disaster. Before my wife found work in her field, we didn’t qualify for Food Assistance due to my status as a college student; students must work at least 20 hours per week to qualify, even non-traditional 33-year-olds like me. Now, we don’t qualify because we make just a little too much money.

The thing about starving once is that a part of your mind is permanently broken. Once it has happened, a switch is flipped, evolution kicks in and food becomes an object of both fear and competition. To this day, I hoard food and overeat. I find myself filling empty milk jugs with water, assuring myself that it will be useful someday. Somewhere in my mind, something is wondering if there will ever be more.

I begin to feel giddy once they hit number 60. When my number is called I happily head into line.

When all is said and done, my bin contains three loaves of bread, two packs of hamburger buns, two small bags of rice, a bucket of macaroni salad, an angel food cake and two bundles of bananas. All for four dollars and 50 cents. Paying this small tithe for the two boxes of food gives me a feeling of self-efficacy, but that isn't what leaves me uplifted as I walk back to my car. It’s the sense of community that an hour in Tito's church service brings, even for someone like me, who isn't terribly religious. It's the idea of being welcomed as equals instead of treated as handouts.

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It's stories like this one that make me proud to be part of this team. 

Thank you, Russ, and The Rapidian.

Agree with you on this, Calvin!