This blog submission was inspired by my beautiful friend and local foodie, Rebecca Maclean, author of the blog: Food Me Once. The October 3rd article “Whoops,” is an inside look at a local Pittsburgh food bank and offers excellent advice on what to consider as we enter the season of Thanksgiving and our own institutions prepare for annual food drives.
For those of us who work in stewardship and donor relations – we know how small kindnesses can have a tremendous impact. Indeed, the act of giving is relative. If a billionaire gives a million dollars he still has a great deal of money but if an individual with thirty-five dollars left over from paying the monthly bills gives ten dollars, both are tremendous acts of giving but the latter is a proportionately greater piece of that individual’s livelihood.
The latter was my grandfather, Henry.
Henry and I weren’t related. He was my mother’s stepfather. He met my grandmother when they were divorced and in their forties. They married and within a matter of years he was diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder and was on complete disability. While he was in terrible pain most days, he was still a cheerful fixture in the lives of his grandchildren. Any day of the week you could find one or more of us playing hooky so that we could be in the kitchen mid-day when the women walked home from work at the university across the street to have lunch around the Geiger family table.
Coldcuts, white bread, salad, cheeses, all were set out on a plain plates for my Grandmother and Aunts – Henry always a gentle presence buzzing about the perimeter where the women in his life gathered for a time and then returned to their various jobs on campus.
It wasn’t until I was in college and coming home for summer visits that it became clear to me that Henry and my Grandmother didn’t have much. In fact, they were barely making ends meet. When I was in high school they moved to their property across Mobile Bay to a tiny place called Magnolia Springs, Alabama. There they built a modest home and inadvertently created Magnolia Spring’s first food bank in the shade of their front porch.
Henry always made friends quickly. His condition didn’t allow him to rest for long periods of time so he was frequently up before dawn greeting the deli ladies from the local Winn-Dixie at the back entrance of the grocery store where they would give him bags of food that were reaching their sell-by date. He would keep them company as they opened the store before dawn and make sure they were safely inside before leaving them to their business of preparing food for the day.
He repeated the routine day after day and pretty soon food vendors from Nabisco and Smith Bread and the like noticed the man at the back of the store. They learned who he was and before long they were meeting him in the parking lot with food for him to take back to his house. Fresh food, not expired, boxes off the trucks.
You see, Henry and my Grandmother would place these boxes of food on their front porch and invite the migrant workers from the neighboring farms to come and take what they needed for their large families. At first it was just a few people that they met at the small church across the street but word soon spread and then something special started to happen.
People started leaving food on the porch in exchange for what they took. Generally these things were leavings from the local harvest, the potatoes, turnip greens, crowder peas and okra that weren’t pretty enough to sell. Squash, tomatoes, onions. In the summertime when we would visit for Sunday dinner the bounty on the table was something to behold. All the while people quietly came and went from the porch and we learned to love this new life of theirs in the country where everyone knew Florence and Henry and the generosity of their front porch.
One day, not long before my Grandmother passed away, the local Winn-Dixie came under new management and the contributions from the deli ceased. It was understandable considering health and safety concerns so there was no bitterness over the end of the arrangement. Instead the food vendors started meeting Henry in the parking lot and leaving boxes of crackers and cereal in the back of his truck while he went about his errands. The generosity and the sense of community – if maybe just this side of legal – was irrepressible.
While we witnessed it often, we didn’t discuss it much. I was twenty-one and I thought it was “cool” but Henry was thinking about it on a much more human level. I never considered what it must have been like to be the child of a migrant worker, knowing little English and coming to school with a grocery-sized paper bag with meager left-overs, if anything at all. And, granted, crackers, cookies, chips and soda weren’t the healthiest options but sometimes a kid just wants to be inconspicuous in their poverty. I get that – preservatives, aspartame and all.
In the years following my Grandmother’s death, Henry lost interest in his endeavor but he never lost his interest in the people in his community. His own funeral was modest but the church was full of the faces I never saw come and go on the front porch. They came out in droves to honor him. I love him. I miss him. We all do. Such great works were accomplished by the work of such kind hands.
All of this is to say that you, personally, can have a tremendous impact on your community by participating in your local Thanksgiving food drives. When shopping in a store or your own pantry simply keep in mind those things that you would like to have/need/use for family meals. The organization Feeding America is also tremendous resource. And when in doubt, remember that with special discounts provided to food banks a monetary donation can go much farther in their hands than our own.