I have used food banks and understand the stigma of poverty

Anyone can fall on hard times – we must view access to food as a basic right.

Food banks opinion/
A volunteer prepares boxes of food in a warehouse for the Alameda Food Bank distribution in Alameda, California, US, 15 April 2020 [John G Mabanglo/EPA-EFE]

There is an image of the coronavirus crisis I cannot shake loose from my head. It is a picture of hundreds of cars outside Pittsburgh, stretching out for over a mile, waiting in line to receive food.

Sadly this picture is not unique. Across the United States, people are waiting in cars, or in many cases on their own two feet, for hours to receive help from their local food bank. I relate to each one 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 Washington state handed me a cardboard box full of pancake mix, rice, dried macaroni noodles, powdered milk, peanut butter, assorted canned goods and a dozen eggs.

Sometimes they would include something special – a packet of brownie mix or a pound of ground beef. These items meant the world to me. They were more than just food, they were symbols of normality: The chance to give my son the type of meal I imagined his elementary school classmates enjoying in comfortable homes with two parents and matching furniture. The chance to feel like I was not a complete failure of a mother. 

I was in my late 20s, divorced and working full time as a receptionist, answering phones for a seedy telemarketing company in a smoke-filled basement. I earned a couple of dollars more than minimum wage but, between daycare, school supplies, rent, gas for the car and utilities, there simply was not enough money for food. 

My son was a perfect little being who deserved the best of everything. I was ashamed I was not the breadwinner he deserved and worried constantly that our financial situation would lead him to believe he was somehow worth less than his peers. I could not hide the fact that I struggled to make ends meet, but I tried my best not to let him know we were actually poor.

I made the trips to the food bank in secret before I picked him up from daycare. Afterwards, we would head to the grocery store where I would shop for the rest of what we needed to get by. It was a deliberate, time-consuming process. Other mothers made a list and breezed through the aisles. I did not have that luxury. I studied each shelf from top to bottom, looking for hidden sales and items that were marked down because they were close to the expiration date. 

I bought the least I could to tide us over until my next paycheque or food bank visit. A roll of toilet paper, a single apple, and a handful of carrots were often enough to see us through. My face would burn with shame as I placed our meagre provisions on the checkout counter. I felt like everyone in the world knew I was poor and worse, that they were judging me for it. 

I did not know then that millions of Americans experience hunger every day. In fact, in its most recent 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 had grown up comfortably middle class, oblivious to issues like food insecurity. None of us has that luxury now. 

The coronavirus crisis has revealed what everyone always knew but few people cared enough about to change.

Wages have not been rising quickly enough to meet the cost of survival and about half of the country has been squeaking by from paycheque to paycheque, living in constant fear that if one unexpected thing happened they would end up homeless, hungry or both. What we did not expect is that it would happen to so many people at once.

More than 22 million people in the US have filed for unemployment in the last month and countless others have tried unsuccessfully to apply for it due to crashing websites and overworked phone lines.

For many of them, the help promised by the federal government’s $2.2 trillion relief package will not be enough and it is already too late. It might be possible to put off paying your bills but you cannot put off feeding your family.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Food banks are wonderful, helpful organisations, but they are not the answer. According to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks across the country, the food bank concept was developed by a retired businessman in the late 1960s in Phoenix, Arizona.

He was just a guy trying to help his neighbours.

Since then, food banks have become fixtures in every corner of the country. They are partially supported by the government, but for the most part, they are reflections of their community. Most of the labour comes from unpaid volunteers and they rely heavily on both cash and physical donations from local citizens.

As food banks scramble to keep up with the changing logistics and increased demand associated with the coronavirus pandemic, it makes you wonder why our nation accepts a system in which food banks are necessary to begin with.

Why are we placing the burden of figuring out how to feed millions of people during a pandemic in the hands of a few volunteers, many of whom will themselves soon be hurting as unemployment numbers continue to rise?

This country has a way of treating poverty as a moral failing despite the fact that we all know that the system is rigged in favour of the people at the top.

The wealthiest individuals pay less in taxes, less in interest, and never have to worry about where to find their next meal.

We know it is unfair but we continue to accept it. Maybe that will change as more people migrate over to the other side of the poverty line.

When hundreds of people are forced to wait in line for a box of food maybe it will finally become too hard to look away. Maybe we will recognise that poverty is a failure of the system, not a failure of the person. Maybe we will finally realise that we are all the same.

Food banks were a lifesaver for me and my son but they will not be enough to save us if the people who need them outnumber the people who donate to them.

The government will have to do more, and make it easier to receive help. Increased benefits and options like universal basic income would feed people without forcing them to wait in four-hour lines, even if the changes were only temporary. The government has been failing its citizens for too long by coasting on the backs of food banks and their hard-working volunteers.

Americans will always step up to help each other where we can but the government needs to work at least as hard as the rest of us. The time to start is now.

The US Constitution grants us the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but none of those things is possible if you cannot feed your family.

It is time we recognise that access to food is just as much a right as lofty ideas and flowery sentences.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.