I drove to Missouri last week and while I was there I helped out at the neighborhood food bank session that an old friend and some of his neighbors have been running on Friday mornings for more than a decade.There’s a tidy old storefront that was a grocery store and later a tavern, but which in recent decades has served formally and informally as a community center. About nine-thirty Friday morning the volunteer workers arrived and a white van rolled up. It was stacked to the ceiling with cardboard boxes of food, a cornucopia on wheels of products from one of the big area grocery stores. Every item in those many boxes was coming near the final Sell By date stamped on the package, hence the donation. Everyone knew what to do, and I followed their example. A few of us began carrying in the boxes.
Tables were arranged around the perimeter of the room, each kind of food with its own table. All the volunteers had regular stations, unloading the food for their table and dropping the empty boxes in the aisle. A huge table bulging with the breads of several different nations was on the left, then fresh veggies, then citrus fruits, berries, and turning the corner to the meats, then prepared salads in plastic containers, packaged dried foods, desserts, and very ripe apples and peaches. I helped carry the empty boxes outside, where a woman broke them down for the recycling bin in the alley. In less than an hour, all the food from the van was in rows and piles on the tables. There were even some bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk. The old storefront was now an entire grocery story in miniature.
The patrons, the guests from the neighborhood, had gathered outside, and it was time to invite them in. I noticed that most of the women came with three or four reusable grocery bags in hand, and some of the men as well, but other men needed to be offered plastic bags when they arrived. Everyone seemed to know the routine. They moved counter-clockwise around the room. There was an opportunity to pick food from each table, though sometimes only one or two items if the supply was small. Everyone had preferences and had a chance to choose. The big box of lemons and limes—choose six, the table attendant said. Some guests chose six lemons, some chose six limes, some took three and three. In line at the food bank, we are all individuals.
Everybody knew each other, and there was a good bit of banter during the hour when the main rush of patrons came through. When that rush subsided, people could come back through a second time, if they wished, and choose again from the now-dwindling supplies. Soon, however, they all headed up or down the sidewalk with their bags, and the volunteers launched into a well-practiced and efficient clean-up routine, and then the trash and recycling bins up the alley swallowed up whatever food was left. Tables were wiped down, volunteers headed out, door locked, and it was not even noon. The neighborhood’s homemade ritual of service and sharing, in partnership with the big grocery store and unfunded except from the goodness of people’s hearts, was done for another week. The effect of it still rippled out in bags through the neighborhood, though, and rippled even further as a good example for me to ponder on my drive back to Indiana. Good will made concrete by neighbors on behalf of other neighbors. A shared life good in both theory and practice. Something they made together. Something that endures.
Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook