Business and Economics

Boxed In


On the long flight to California, my husband shares with me a Business Week article on the dismal economy. Our discussion drifts to its effect on the middle class and specifically on our children.

When we arrive at our daughter’s modest home, the boxes lining her front walkway are an eyesore. I expect my husband to comment on the flies buzzing about, on how tacky the yard appears. Instead, as if continuing our earlier conversation, he says, “This is quite a statement about the economy’s impact on Miriam’s community.”

Stifling my involuntary shudder at the ugliness, I peer in the first carton: bruised fruit. In the next I see skinny, multi-colored peppers. As we move toward the house, I poke around in crates that hold canned vegetables, packages of cookies, and bags of chips past their expiration dates. Plastic sacks labeled Continental Kosher Bakery or Sam’s Kosher Bakery contain hotdog and hamburger buns, bagels, and assorted loaves and rolls.

This informal food pantry began more than a year ago when my son-in-law was out of work. To supplement my daughter’s earnings and his unemployment check, he signed up to receive groceries from area food banks. Each week he returned the non-kosher items—canned pork and beans, for example—from the previous week’s bag. Because he could never accept the bread, he asked the nearby kosher bakery managers to donate their day-old products. He and Miriam kept a little for themselves and their four children, then shared the rest with needy families. Last time I visited, I heard Miriam phoning struggling Orthodox neighbors to invite them to check out the free baked goods.

Now, six months later, the informal food program has grown beyond the bakery items and moved outside, under the Los Angeles sun, making it more flexible and anonymous. Miriam has taken charge of the project. She has recruited a crop of volunteers to collect expired goods and yesterday’s produce from the all-kosher supermarket at the corner and deliver them to her yard. Each night my 5-foot-1-inch daughter drags the heavy bags of baked goods into the house; each morning she schleps them back to the porch. Twice weekly, she loads whatever is left into her station wagon and delivers it to an official food pantry.

During my visit, I accompany her to the food bank. The mingled aroma of bread and overripe fruit fills the car. “Tell me about this setup,” I ask her. “Who runs it? Who uses it?”

“It’s an interfaith effort supported by nine churches and two synagogues,” she replies. One of the churches provides free space.”

“Any chance I can talk to someone there?”

“I’ll introduce you to Jerry, the manager. He’s a member of a co-sponsoring Reform congregation. He can tell you more.”

At the church parking lot, men greet Miriam with warm smiles and muscular arms ready to unload the car. I’m pleased with her relaxed relationship with these men, who, at least on the surface, seem so different from her. “They’re all volunteers,” Miriam says, leading me inside.

White-haired Jerry, whose lively voice belies his eighty-five years, stops working to answer my questions. When he tells me he’s been doing this for twenty-five years, I ask why.

“I grew up in Brooklyn. My dad had a candy store, and he worked from six in the morning till midnight, seven days a week. We lived in the back. Dad always stopped for family dinner at six, and night after night, he’d call ahead to my mother to set an extra place.”

He pauses to answer a volunteer’s question, then turns back to me with a modest shrug. “My parents were constantly feeding homeless people, so this seems like the natural thing to do.”

“Your parents would be so proud to know how you are following their example,” I comment. “How many of your clients are actually homeless?”

“About 20 percent of the eight thousand people we feed a month. One homeless man comes by every morning at seven. For six hours, he lifts, sorts, hauls, whatever we need. Then he takes a bag of food for himself, with great dignity, because he’s earned it.”

I don’t know why this man is homeless, but, judging from his actions here, he doesn’t belong in the box in which society has placed him: unstable, undignified, unreliable.

Now Jerry nods toward a teen, who is stacking cases of canned goods. “That boy is an actor. He’s only fourteen, and already he has a trust fund worth three quarters of a million dollars from doing commercials.”

The youngster is tall, blond, handsome, and intent on what he’s doing.

“So why’s he here?” I ask, scribbling frantically to keep up with Jerry’s pace.

“His acting schedule is irregular, so he’s being home-schooled. Whenever he has a free Friday, his father brings him here to do community service. They work side by side.”

I don’t know why this man is homeless, but, judging from his actions here, he doesn’t belong in the box in which society has placed him: unstable, undignified, unreliable.

I look at the pair and see another stereotype crumble. This is no pampered Hollywood kid whose parents will allow him to get by on only good looks and talent.

I motion toward rows of brown paper sacks. “What’s in those?”

“Canned fruits and vegetables, rice and beans, pasta and cereals. People have to meet federal income standards and are limited to a bag a week.” Jerry smiles at Miriam as he continues, “That’s the beauty of the food Miriam brings. It’s all extra, above and beyond what the government subsidizes. There are no limits and people love the fresh produce and snack foods.”

My daughter’s blue eyes sparkle. “And I appreciate the chance to help feed hungry people. This is so much more meaningful to me than PTA bake sales.”

Jerry nods in agreement. I beam with maternal pride.

Back outside, I look for peppers that hadn’t interested Miriam’s Jewish “clients.” In this Hispanic neighborhood, all but a handful have disappeared.

Saturday evening, not long after the end of Shabbat, the doorbell rings. In marches a volunteer’s family bearing leftovers from their synagogue’s seudah shelishit: assorted salads, hummus, rolls, pita, half-full containers of soda, and bottled water. They deposit the bonanza and Miriam starts phoning.

Soon a woman who cobbles together part-time jobs walks in, followed by a mother who home-schools her children because even with significant financial aid, Jewish day school tuition is out of reach. Later an unemployed father of six arrives. These folks are boxed in by their commitment to choices that are expensive and, to them, non-negotiable: large families, proximity to synagogues, Jewish day schools, and kosher food. Smiling at the laden table, they carefully spoon salads into containers they bring or bags that Miriam provides.

“Am I taking too much?”

“That water’s available? My sons will be thrilled to have water bottles in their lunch bags this week.”

“How many more people are you expecting tonight? I don’t want to take more than my share.”

“Thank you for calling me. This is such a mechayah [blessing].”

Sunday morning, we haul the remaining bakery items outside. In the evening, volunteers deliver bakery and grocery items from the neighborhood stores, and the cycle continues for the benefit of fifteen to twenty needy Orthodox families.

A few days later, as my husband Julian and I wheel our suitcases between the cartons, I no longer see them as an eyesore. Instead of stale bread, I envisage a large family extending its limited food budget. Rather than bruised fruit, I see nutrition. The outdated snack food packages seem to shimmer like a child’s joy at discovering lunch bag treats.

I hug Miriam tightly. The project that nourishes my daughter’s soul has refocused my vision.

B.J. Yudelson is a retired writer for not-for-profit agencies. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications. She volunteers extensively in Rochester’s Jewish community.

This article was featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Jewish Action.