For the past six months, I have volunteered at the Table, a food pantry in downtown Fredericksburg. It is run by St. George episcopal church and is open every week at 9:30 in the morning and 5 in the evening for an hour and a half each time. I try to go once a week in the evenings, where I am tasked with monitoring the types of food that each person may or may not take. This food costs $45,000 each year, money obtained from governmental, nonprofit, commercial, and public funds.
The individuals that attend the table are usually not homeless. Often, many of them have homes, and work low income jobs whose salaries do not provide enough to put food on the table week to week. Before the Table began, individuals would be given an emergency food bag if they couldn’t last the entire month on their income. This bag restricted their choice in food and had a limited quantity. Then, the food pantry began to give the church perishables, which eventually lead to the creation of the food pantry. The new system created was set up in a market style pantry where shoppers were able to select their own items with a selection of food focused on fresh produce.
There are so many aspects of power that can be seen at the Table. For example, the Table exhibits power by how it gets its money; the shoppers exhibit power by their choice in produce; the volunteers exhibit power by deciding and controlling the amount a shopper can take from one specific item. By using governmental funds partially, and instead focusing on receiving funds from charities, the public, and local commercial organizations the table takes a lot of the power out of government’s hands, placing it instead in control of the Table. This also puts more responsibility on the Table to do work for the people of the community, something traditionally meant for the government. This, in a lot of ways, mixes up the often obstructive role of power by the government onto the people of low working class.
When I worked as a volunteer, I have the power mentioned above – I say how many you can and cannot have in order to feed your family. I do this because there needs to be enough to go around for everyone. I also have an unmentioned, automatic power: I am a healthy, white female who is financially secure with many privileges, and most of these individuals are minorities with nowhere near the amount of privileges that I have. This can create tension sometimes, and it has. Sometimes, some individuals will try to take too many cabbage, or lettuce, or something, and I have to say no – often with a language difference making the power difference a lot more obvious. This means you need to find ways to lower the power differentials. One of the ways I found to do this was to ask the names of the produce in languages of some of the shoppers. This puts me at a lower power level than originally, making the tension recede slightly.
Working at the table has been a fantastic experience for me. A lot of the power dynamics that we talked about in class are applicable to here very clearly. Its enabled me to interact with people who I normally wouldn’t interact with in my daily life, and it gives the statistics a visual reality with what it is really like.