Skip to main content

What It's Like to Wait in Line for Free Food for the Needy

With two of her own, Denise remarried and brought two children from her husband together to explore what it means to be a blended family.

Feeding your family

Feeding your family

Making Ends Meet

Waiting in line for food, I hear people talking. Some sound proud, some ashamed to be here. Some are confident about tomorrow; others resigned to their dejected fated. For two hours we wait, keeping a 6-foot social distance and most with facemasks. A small community of needy from all walks of life, and we wait. They may have been affluent last month but this month everything has changed. Some are professional needy, getting by year after year by waiting in these food distribution lines. Eliminating $200 or more from the food budget makes it possible to pay the ever-increasing rents. It has become a way of life for many of us. Others have never been here before and don’t know how it works.

A screenshot of this months food distribution calendar for the Central Valley Food Bank

A screenshot of this months food distribution calendar for the Central Valley Food Bank

Where To Look

If you have access to the Internet, you can find a number of places, many of them are churches, where food is distributed on a monthly or bimonthly basis. USDA commodities from local farms and produce subsidize many of these places. Some give outdated food or close to expiring food from local markets, such as bouquets of flowers, milk, cheese, produce, cut salads, and even sandwiches. Google Food Commodities or Food Distribution. My city has a calendar and a listing based on miles from my address. In that way, I can choose where to go within a one or two-mile parameter of my home. If you don’t have access to the Internet, try asking at your local library or call the City or County Community Services.

Oranges and apples from this month's food distribution

Oranges and apples from this month's food distribution

What It Is Like

Elderly men and women lay in the grass under a tree, while the 2-year-old toddler chases his 4-year-old sibling around the hedges and parking lot. Mothers try in vain to keep the babies calm and sated while ordering siblings to stay near. A white-haired bent-over man argues politics with his younger friend over the screams of a nearby infant. Two middle-aged women discuss religion and the provision of a good God. And the waves of people, young and old, with assorted bags and carts, keep coming.

“If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.”

— Buzz Aldrin

My Turn Comes

The time finally comes. The faithful church workers have set up the tables with boxes and bags of USDA commodities 6 feet apart and are ready to start calling numbers. The numbers were given our hours ago and because I was here so early I got number 42. Those who have come only one hour ago have to wait longer, with a number like 150. This particular church feeds 200 to 300 people every other week. With the current situation, many more have been coming than usually do. The newbies don’t know how it works and have to be given directions. The anticipation builds. What will we be getting this time? Last time we got bags of lemons and apples, bunches of asparagus and bags of beans and rice. We never know ahead of time. We take what we can get... and we are grateful for it. I fold up my chair and return it to the car to prepare.

Finally, my number is called and I step up to the line, 6 feet behind the white-haired lady ahead of me. We have both brought little rolling carts to carry our food back to the car. It is too heavy to carry in our arms most of the time. Slowly we step up to the tables as the persons ahead move on to the next one. They don’t ask our income or proof of residence. They only want to know how many in the family. The sweet men, women, and teens are wearing masks as they move the food along. They have volunteered to be here to feed the poor and support the needy. I say another silent prayer asking God to bless them for their sacrifice of time and effort, along with the risk of exposure, all for us.

The Pandemic Changes Things

They used to hand us cans and bags. Now they have bagged up the canned food and the vegetables and place them into our carts without touching us. It is really very efficient. I can see through the bags that I am getting 2 bags of oranges, 2 bags of Granny Smith apples, (oh I see apple pie in the future), 2 bags of canned food I will examine when I get home, a giant bag of carrots, a giant bag of pickling cucumbers (I see dill pickles and pickle relish in my future), a giant bag cherry tomatoes, a giant bag of purple seedless grapes. It is so heavy I can hardly get my cart to roll but I am singing God’s praises all the way back to my car. When you are a vegan, the vegetables and fruits are so important, and when times get hard and money is scarce, I am often left with beans and rice for weeks. I’m so happy. I will be making carrot cake, carrot chips, coleslaw, carrot sticks, carrot salad with cherry tomatoes, and homemade sun-dried tomatoes (in my oven) with grapes or oranges for dessert.

These are hard times for many people but it seems the poor have less than nothing. If I had a plot of land I would be growing my own veggies, but I have no access to land. Sometimes I go out to the strip of vacant land near my apartment and forage for wild greens: miner’s lettuce, dock, and mallow. But the pickings are few and everything will be mowed under soon. We are not in the long lines because we want to be here or because we are lazy. It is necessary to make ends meet, now more than ever. I am grateful. I can now pay the rent and have food in my refrigerator. We will be okay this month. Next month we will have to see what comes.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Toughnickel

Final Thoughts

Have you ever had to wait in a food distribution line for commodities? What was it like? Would you be ashamed to have to do it? I feel sad at times that it has come to this but I see I am not alone. There is no shame in being needy. There is more shame in being rich and greedy and uncompassionate toward the less fortunate. What do you think?


Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on March 05, 2021:

Virginia Allain,

It feels like there is a judgment on you somehow when you have to line up for free food. Yes, the gap between the top and the bottom is getting ever wider. Thanks for commenting.



Virginia Allain from Central Florida on August 02, 2020:

It's sad that too many people think that being poor is some sort of character defect. The reality is that many economic forces come together to throw people into poverty and keep them there. Right now, is the perfect storm, though our system has been forcing people downward for the past 30 years and destroying our middle class.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 27, 2020:

Thanks, Peggy. I think our metal is being put through the fire of testing and hopefully what is left is something of real substance in each of us.



Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 27, 2020:

Hi Denise,

There are many such efforts in our area also where food and even masks are handed out to anyone who needs it. Most of the places are drive through areas where the items are placed in the vehicles with no contact measures in place.

With school opening delays, many families will have to rely upon free food distribution for an even longer amount of time.