There is a picture of corona virus crisis I could not escape from my head. This is a picture of hundreds of cars outside Pittsburgh, stretching for more than a mile, waiting in line to receive food.
Unfortunately this picture is not unique. Throughout the United States, people wait in cars, or in many cases on foot alone, for hours to receive help from their local food bank. I relate to each of them. Twenty years ago, I was a food bank customer myself.
Once a month, volunteers in a church basement in a small town in the state of Washington handed me a cardboard box full of a mixture of pancakes, rice, dried macaroni noodles, milk powder, peanut butter, various cans and a dozen eggs.
Sometimes they put something special – a packet of brownies or a pound of beef. These items mean the world to me. They are more than food, they are a symbol of normality: The opportunity to give my child the kind of food I imagine his school friends enjoy in comfortable homes with two parents and matching furniture. The opportunity to feel like I’m not a failure of a mother.
I am in my late 20s, divorced and working full time as a receptionist, answering the phone to a shabby telemarketing company in a smoke-filled cellar. I get a few dollars more than the minimum wage but, between child care, school supplies, rent, gasoline for cars and utilities, there isn’t enough money for food.
My child is a perfect little creature who deserves the best of everything. I am shy. I am not a proper breadwinner and worry constantly that our financial situation will make him believe that he is somehow of lower value than his friends. I could not hide the fact that I was struggling to make ends meet, but I tried my best not to tell him that we were actually poor.
I traveled to the food bank in secret before I picked her up from daycare. After that, we will go to the grocery store where I will shop for the rest of what we need. It is a deliberate and time-consuming process. Other mothers make lists and go through the aisles. I do not have that luxury. I studied each shelf from top to bottom, looking for hidden sales and items marked as they were nearing the expiration date.
I bought as little as I could to plug us in until the next payday or food bank visit. A roll of toilet paper, an apple, and a few carrots was enough to get us through. My face will burn with shame when I place our supplies at the cashier. I feel as if everyone in the world knows I am poorer and worse, that they judge me for it.
I did not know at the time that millions of Americans were starving every day. In fact, in its latest report published in 2018, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that 11.8 percent of US households do not have enough food to eat. I have grown comfortably in the middle class, unaware of problems such as food insecurity. None of us have that luxury now.
The coronavirus crisis has revealed what everyone has always known but few people care to change.
Wages have not risen fast enough to meet the cost of living and around half of the country has been squeaking from paycheque to paycheque, living in constant fear that if one unexpected thing happens, they will end up without a home, hungry or both. What we didn’t expect was that it would happen to so many people at once.
More than 22 million people in the US had filed for unemployment last month and many others had tried unsuccessfully to apply for it because of a website that was breaking down and overworked telephone lines.
For many of them, the assistance was promised by the federal government $ 2.2 trillion in aid package won’t be enough and it’s too late. It is possible to postpone paying your bills, but you cannot delay feeding your family.
The question is, what will we do?
The food bank is an extraordinary and helpful organization, but they are not the answer. Based on Feed America, a network of 200 food banks throughout the country, the concept of a food bank was developed by a retired businessman in the late 1960s in Phoenix, Arizona.
He is just a man who is trying to help his neighbor.
Since then, food banks have become equipment in every corner of the country. They are partly supported by the government, but for the most part, they are a reflection of their community. Most of the workforce comes from unpaid volunteers and they rely heavily on cash and physical donations from local residents.
When food banks struggle to keep up with logistical changes and the increasing demand associated with the coronavirus pandemic, it makes you wonder why our country accepts a system where food banks are needed to start.
Why do we place the burden of figuring out how to feed millions of people during the pandemic at the hands of several volunteers, many of whom will soon be injured because unemployment continues to rise?
This country has a way to treat poverty as a moral failure despite the fact that we all know that this system is designed to support people at the top.
The richest people pay less tax, lower interest, and don’t have to worry where to look for their next meal.
We know it’s not fair but we continue to accept it. Maybe that will change as more people migrate to the other side of the poverty line.
When hundreds of people are forced to queue for a box of food it might end up being too difficult to turn away. Maybe we will realize that poverty is a system failure, not someone’s failure. Maybe we will finally realize that we are all the same.
The food bank is a savior for me and my child, but they will not be enough to save us if the people who need it outnumber those who contribute to them.
The government must do more, and make it easier to receive assistance. Increased benefits and options such as universal basic income will feed people without forcing them to wait in a four-hour queue, even if the change is only temporary. The government has disappointed its citizens for too long by making use of the food bank and their hardworking volunteers.
Americans will always move to help each other where we can, but the government needs to work at least as hard as all of us. The time to start is now.
The US Constitution gives us the inalienable right to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, but those things are not possible if you cannot feed your family.
It is time we realize that access to food is as great as great ideas and flowery sentences.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial attitude.
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