The honest truth is I did not even know what a food pantry was before I worked at one. I knew people collected and donated food, but I never thought about the logistics of how the food is distributed to the people that need it (which is embarrassing to admit).

I started working at the food pantry after working at an ad agency. It was a totally different environment, to say the least. I went from glass walls and free happy hours to working at a kids’ table in a Sunday school room with people from all different backgrounds.

A food pantry is a place that distributes food to low-income individuals. For four years, I worked at Chicago’s longest running food pantry on the North side.

Here are a few of the things I learned from my time at the food pantry:

The people who we classify as “poor” are not who you expect. There are many chronically homeless humans who have lived on the streets for over a decade who come to get food (as much as they can carry) and enjoy a meal. There are lots of elderly people who can’t survive on only social security. There are literally people of all ages and backgrounds, some living on their own, some working, some out of work, and some suffering from an illness or disability. The common denominator between every person that walked through the door was they were in a vulnerable position.

People end up in the low-income category because they have no way out. There is a stereotype I’ve heard that “the poor” need to stop “being lazy” and “find a job.” This really pisses me off and could not be further from the truth. The people we consider to be “poor” are those who have no one to turn to for help and are stuck in one way or another – whether in the cycle of poverty, substance abuse, or mental illness.

Most people are embarrassed to be receiving a handout. Every human being wants to be able to take care of themselves. That’s what dignity is. Although the food pantry offers great services to people who can’t afford to buy their own food, there’s also an underlying element of shame for those who need to come and receive without being able to give in return. Men and women who are my elders wouldn’t look me in the eye. Reciprocity is really important, especially to someone in a vulnerable position. Most people had a way of giving back, whether it was cleaning up, taking out the garbage, bringing in treats, helping other people—when money wasn’t accepted, people got creative in how they could “pay” for the help they were receiving.

At the same time, everyone was extremely grateful and respectful. The amount of love and sense of community that grows from a place that is functioning for people to help each other is truly beyond words. I personally received gifts and cards and hugs and kind letters and art from all the people who were so thankful to have somewhere to come and feel understood.

We have some real problems. With how we treat the most vulnerable amongst us. There’s not enough shelters, affordable housing, or jobs. Mental illness and substance abuse and homelessness are all caught together in a web that becomes a trap that most people can’t get out of alone. The formerly incarcerated and veterans are also often stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Most of our systems are broken. SNAP (food stamps) is meant to supplement a family’s nutrition. Benefits are cut each year and an average person doesn’t even receive enough money to buy food for themselves or their family for a week. Navigating Medicaid and healthcare for low-income individuals and families is a web of confusion. There’s totally limited assistance when it comes to eye care or dental needs. Homeless shelters are scarce and the biggest ones have totally nasty, unsafe conditions. It can also be tough for someone to find shelter if they’re also dealing with an addiction.

There are so many helpers. There are so many good-hearted, kind, generous people who want to give and help. They come to a place like a food pantry with their extra donations, their time, their talents, and their caring. When these people team up with those in need, that’s when the magic happens.

People get lost in the system. But when one individual connects with another, true change happens. For four years, I helped hundreds of people try to navigate the web of nonprofit and government agencies offering social services. While these services are needed, many just function as a band-aid. I saw people really change – like go from homeless to living in an apartment, or go from unemployed to working at Whole Foods – when they were connected with someone who stayed the course and helped them. For example, one woman met another homeless woman in a park one day. They became friends and eventually, working together, they found the homeless woman a place to live.

Those who are poor in wealth are often rich in spirit. The people I met at the food pantry may have been considered “poor” based on their bank account or lack thereof, but they were some of the most faith-filled, hopeful, and positive people I’ve ever met in my life.

Empowerment is key. It might make me feel better to hand someone a can of soup because I’m able to buy it and they can’t. But in the long run, it’s better to hand them the can of soup and ask: What else do you need? It’s better to form true, real connections with people and find out how to make them feel empowered in their life. Hand outs are a band-aid, but a hand up is a solution.

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