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Q: Since divorcing my abusive husband, money’s been tight. Some weeks, I don’t even know how I’m going to afford enough food for myself and my kids. Should I go to a food bank? I’ve never been to one and I feel embarrassed. Do I need to prove my income? – Anonymous
Congratulations for extricating yourself from the relationship with your abuser, Anon. That’s not an easy feat, as any survivor knows, so be proud that you’ve made the best and safest decision long-term for your family. I hope that you and your children have begun the healing process.
Facing financial insecurity in the midst of this big change probably isn’t helping your stress level. A lot of survivors find themselves trying to regain financial independence after leaving an abusive partner, especially if that abuser controlled the finances, not allowing you to access money during or after the partnership, forbidding you from going to school or holding a job, or isolating you from friends or family who could help you.
To answer your question—yes, you absolutely can go to a food bank if you’re struggling with putting food on the table for your family. That’s what food banks are for.
And no, you should not feel ashamed or embarrassed about this. The USDA estimates 15.6 million U.S. households were food insecure at some point during 2016. This means they were uncertain about having, or unsure of how to acquire, enough food to feed their family. This included 6.5 million children. The majority of those food insecure households were single women with children, like yourself.
In other words, you are not alone.
As someone who used to work for a food bank, I can tell you I saw all types of people come in for emergency food assistance: Families, single people, young and old, all cultures and all races, people in fancy cars, people with no cars, homeless individuals, men in business suits—people from all walks of life can experience food insecurity. It may last for one week or one year, but things happen in life, and no one is immune from hardship.
“One dramatic event can just knock you off your feet and food banks are there to fill in the gaps,” says Daniela Ogden, director of communications and development with the California Association of Food Banks. “Maybe food stamps didn’t stretch as long you thought they would, or your paycheck isn’t enough to provide healthy food for your family. There are no questions asked, no judgment. It’s important to take care of yourself.”
On to your question about the process. Most food banks are primarily collection and distribution sites—in other words, they purchase or collect food from a variety of sources and distribute it to agencies that work directly with clients, like emergency shelters or schools. (On that note, if you have a child under the age of 5, you may want to check with your local WIC office—Women, Infants and Children—about receiving food assistance and other resources specifically allotted for moms of little ones.)
However, many food banks do offer emergency food boxes, sometimes called “to-go boxes,” on site, says Ogden. They’re set aside for individuals who walk in looking for immediate help. Or, the food bank may schedule a distribution window for community members to come pick up a week’s worth of food. Your first step should be to contact your local food bank and ask what kind of assistance they offer. You can find your local food bank here.
The food bank may also have someone on-site who can help you apply for an assistance program, like SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Ask if you can set up an appointment to talk about that option and again, don’t feel embarrassed. It can be used as a short-term solution.
“A lot of people don’t think they qualify for SNAP, but they do,” says Ogden. “Most people who sign up for SNAP find they need it for a brief time until they can get back on their feet.”
For SNAP, you will need to provide some proof of income, or lack thereof, but to just receive an emergency food box, you shouldn’t need to provide any sort of documentation.
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What will be in your food box? It varies from place to place, but Ogden says, in California at least, their goal is to provide nutrition first—it’s more than just filling a calorie need. “We have a meal in mind in each box—there might be a package of spaghetti, some beans and fresh broccoli. The thought is to prepare a meal. Some food banks have ready-to-eat foods for those who don’t have a kitchen.”
They also try to provide protein and source local, organic produce whenever possible.
In addition, food banks also work with a variety of community organizations and can be a valuable resource in connecting you with other kinds of local assistance. For instance, says Ogden, the Sacramento Food Bank has a clothing bank, offers parenting classes and distributes feminine hygiene products and diapers, in addition to food. Other food banks, she says, work with legal advocacy programs to prevent situations that might involve the child welfare system.
“In some areas, the food bank is the most established community-based organization. They’re very well connected in being able to direct people to the right place.”
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