By Rachel Dornhelm
The news is full of stories of an economic recovery. But food banks are still full of people in need. That need is even greater in some surprising places, like the affluent Bay Area county of Marin.
Between 2010 and 2011 the number of low income residents in Marin rose 18 percent. That includes families making up to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Limit. In Marin, that translates into a family four who is earning $41,000 per year.
There are agencies and community groups working to reach out to these residents. One recent weekend morning in the town of Fairfax about a dozen people are setting up tables in a church courtyard. Underneath red tinged maple leaves, Marin resident Mike Wilson points to food piled up on tables.
"Tomatoes and more produce at the very back," says Wilson. "Carrots, pasta, marinara sauce and green beans there."
By 9:00 am, people are walking around filling canvas bags and boxes with apples, squash and pears. It looks like a farmer's market but it's actually a food pantry, stocked by the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks.
"There are some agencies that will put together a bag and will give you the bag," says Wilson. "It's just a different approach here. Again I think the idea behind the empowerment is to try to preserve some dignity for people as well. "
As Wilson speaks, he greets visitors and hands out the cartons of eggs from the table he is supervising. With every dozen he gives a smile and sometimes a recipe. Quiche for dinner tomorrow, he recommends, and egg salad sandwich over the week.
One of the people who receives a dozen eggs is Fairfax contractor Brian Glen. He has a shaved head, easy smile and direct gaze.
"It's not just poor folks here," Glen says. "If you look around you what you see here is the middle class trying to make ends meet. I'm a California contractor and since 2008 there really has been no work so this is really helping our family get through tough times."
Glen says his son, also a contractor, moved back in with him. He'd never been to a food pantry before this one opened about a year and a half ago.
"It makes it so I can afford to get gas," says Glen. "So I can pass out my pamphlets and create some more work."
He says he tries not to come if he can because he knows there are other people doing poorly. If he has a job he doesn't come, he says, but when it's thin the food makes a difference.
Others benefiting from the pantry this Saturday include a nurse, a family subsisting on an hourly wage, a care provider and volunteer Mike Wilson.
When his shift at the egg table finishes he starts getting together his own bag of food. "We have our own family to provide for," says Wilson. "It really takes the edge off. Makes it a lot easier."
He goes through an inventory of a bag that he has packed up to take home: pasta, eggs, green cauliflower, green beans, marinara sauce. Wilson lives in a housing complex associated with the seminary he attends in Marin. He and his wife, Kathleen, left jobs in the Central Valley for him to make this career change and become a minister.
Wilson cooks some of the food he got at the food bank for dinner later that week. As he chops the green cauliflower, his wife Kathleen Wilson talks about how even careful financial planning for his career in the ministry couldn't keep up with the reality of their lives now.
"It's just a little humbling," she says. "To be at one point of your life where you were donating all the time. And then at the other end where we could use some of that, but we also volunteer at the food bank. That's very important to us to be giving still."
Kathleen Wilson says the cost of living in Marin was much higher than they anticipated. The job she found is part-time. And unexpectedly, shortly before arriving here, they became guardians of their granddaughter.
"Receiving the food has been very helpful," she says. "It really does help supplement. You know some of the things we receive really help carry us to the next week."
Mike Wilson agrees.
"It just kind of opens your eyes," he says. "And hopefully makes you recalibrate your own ideas of what is enough and what is plenty. And if I have plenty I can share that with someone else and still have enough.
Soon the unmistakable smell of sauteed chicken fills the room and the couple calls their granddaughter to join them for dinner. Before they sit down they join hands and say grace. As they stand in a circle in the kitchen Mike Wilson leads them through a blessing that includes this thought: "And as we enjoy blessings, let us be a blessing to others, whether it's a smile or a hug or simply opening a door. Just a very basic act of kindness that makes somebody's day a much better day."
After the prayer, the family digs into food and conversation. Kathleen Wilson says food is something many people take for granted. She says she did. And it's a revelation to come to a time in your life when you really are thankful that it's available.