This story is part of a Scroll series highlighting hunger in Eastern Idaho.
On a frosty Wednesday morning, individuals, couples and families duck into Rexburg’s Family Crisis Center. All of them escape the cold, and some go back out onto the street without a thought. But most come in hoping for another few days of food.
They follow the dull roar of conversation filling the air. They either enter the back door and go directly down the stairs, or they come from the front and walk through the building to get to the same staircase. Conversation grows louder, and the line takes shape, stretching back and forth through the room and up the staircase, then rounding out into the main floor of the building to avoid the cold outside the back door.
But things really get moving when Marie Harris cries out over the crowd, “Serving number one!” Over the next hour she and Kristi Bradshaw will switch places and help those in line to get the food they need.
When visitors reach basement level again, they can sip a courtesy cup of fresh coffee or cocoa from a small table, but it’s up to Harris and Bradshaw to keep things moving.
Harris calls more numbers over the throng, and you might be able to piece together some people’s stories at a glance. But even if the story of hunger is the same, there are some people you’d never expect to see telling it.
When you picture a visitor to a food bank, you may imagine a scruffy man with a thick checkered jacket, a neck beard and an oversized hat shuffling around and never lifting his eyes above ground level. Out of the couple dozen visitors to the bank this morning, that may have been true twice, maybe three times.
But behind the checkered-jacket man, a young mother looks longingly ahead as she bounces her baby to sleep.
Near the front of the line, a young couple holding hands shuffles up and awaits their number to be called next. Closer to the middle of the line, two dark-skinned men nearly shout over the crowd about their classes later that day, their accents revealing their trek to arrive to the BYU-Idaho campus from Africa, and their delayed FAFSA funds.
Over the course of two weekly food bank hours, nearly 180 people will be served in the Madison County community alone. And this happens Wednesday and Friday from noon until 1 p.m.
For some, it might be considered an hour of tested patience. For those in the line, it means full tummies and another day without a growling gut.
Behind the Front Counter
Harris is essentially the “PR manager” for the food bank. She’s also attending to clients visiting the bank. Standing at a small desk, she calls out numbers and checks visitors’ proof of Madison County residence. Between visits she occasionally ducks back and looks beyond the threshold into the food prep room to see how things are going.
Harris sees a row of six deep freezers along the wall to her left and four standing refrigerators in a corner to her right. A long L-shaped table extends beyond the fridges and bends back along the far wall. At the end of the table, shelves full of bread, crackers, pastas and even novelty items like Pop Tarts sit ready to serve needy families. But even so, the room is nothing more than a large basement storage room.
Harris laughs, “We can’t have more than about 20 volunteers down here, or we’re all stepping on each other.” Harris says each one of these volunteers applied from the Family Crisis Center’s website and gets vetted and approved before being brought onto the Food Bank crew.
The Food Bank takes between 20 and 25 volunteers at any given time. Volunteers show up early before the food bank opens and help prepare each box of food. First, the boxes are folded into shape and placed on tall roller-carts. Next, they begin the process of filling the boxes with frozen goods, getting ground beef, chicken, pork and even seafood.
About 320,000 pounds of food were redistributed through the Food Bank in 2018. Harris says each of the items in the Food Bank are donated by community members, college students leaving for home between semesters and local businesses like Albertsons, Walmart and Broulim’s. The Bank takes fresh-but-nearly-expired or lightly-damaged goods. Even lightly blemished fruits that would otherwise be overlooked by store shoppers are offered fresh and safe to eat from the Food Bank. Harris clarifies that the bank can’t accept food that’s already opened.
After frozen goods, the volunteers chat as they wheel their loads to the fridges for dairy, fruit and vegetables. From there, it’s a quick trip to breads, crackers, boxed cereals and canned goods.
The process of boxing and prepping doesn’t start until those in line waiting for food discuss with Harris or those behind the counter exactly how many members are in their family.
What’s more, each box serves one person with enough food for several days, and even beyond a week with planning. These boxes are handed out based on the size of the family seeking them, so when a family of nine shows up to the Food Bank, they’re treated with the same respect as a single college student.
As the food bank patrons slowly trickle out the door, the echoes of conversation still stick on the basement walls, and volunteers grin as they collapse onto the bench for a break. They’ve been prepping food boxes, and in some cases carrying them up and down stairs, for the past hour. For them, it’s worth it.
For Harris, her reward is a job well done. For the end of this Wednesday’s Food Bank, she only has two days to prepare for Friday’s “senior citizen” hours beginning at 11:30 a.m. Then, official food bank hours will begin all over again.
“I get paid to serve the community,” she says, “I have the best job in the world!”