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I’ve been unemployed for ten months and have been able to provide for my family, but after filing my taxes and having to pay, I knew I could use a little help. Our local elementary school had a flyer posted offering “Free Food Friday April 24th…a collaborative effort between Mental Health Systems, Inc.-South County Center for Change and Feeding America San Diego…to express our gratitude to the family and friends of Drug Court.”

The location was at the South County Center for Change on Palm Avenue...not far from me, so I thought I would give it a try. I arrived 30 minutes before the posted start time and there were maybe 30 people in line, but the start time was delayed 90 minutes and the line grew to about 200 people.

I had hoped not to see anyone I knew, but I was soon joined in line by several parents from the local school. We smiled at each other but didn’t talk. At first we were all strangers, quiet with hands in our pockets, but slowly a few began to talk. A spider on the wall elicited conversation about spider bites, then about kids, then about other places having food giveaways.

All sorts of people: an older couple, the man puffing on what smelled like a cheap cigar, his wife her hair looking beauty-parlor fresh and both sipping from Starbucks cups; young couples with babies in strollers, lots of grandparents in tow; the local homeless couple who hang out at the 99 cent store; others in line were also doing laundry in the next door Laundromat.

A lady from the Reach Out to Families Center in Imperial Beach walked down the line with a box of donuts and told everybody of the services her agency offered. Another young man handed out business cards for the Imperial Beach Health Center.

When the food distribution began, the line moved quickly. Everyone was patient. Of the items I received, none of them was expected. My package contained two boxes of Orville Redenbacher’s gourmet popping corn (best by date 08/09); cans of Cool Whip (dated 04/04/09); two cartons of Egg Beaters (dated 04/06/09); three snack-packs of Knudsen cottage cheese (dated 4/18/09); a gallon of orange juice (04/28/09); a ten-pack of Capri Sun drink pouches (best by 02/10); along with 11 bottles of a low-calorie electrolyte beverage.

Jennifer Gilmore, director of operations for Feeding America San Diego told me they work closely with their food donors to ensure that the food is safe for consumption.

“In this case, with the cottage cheese and whip cream [being past ‘best by’ dates], Kraft Foods guarantees their product for at least seven days past the expiration date. ‘Best by’ dates give us even more wiggle room....

“Feeding America San Diego‘s Community Food Distribution program was originally established...to provide extra product — usually produce, perishable, or close-to-date foods — to [another] agency to distribute along with the rice, beans, canned goods, cereal. However, we got hit by the recession. Suddenly our partner agencies were hosting distributions for 2000 instead of 20 people and the product initially intended to subsidize other product became the only food available. Literally, our pantries cannot keep their shelves stocked.”

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