I recently started standing in what I refer to as “the food line.”

Each week, free produce – and sometimes other food items – is given out at various places around Napa. We’ve done stories on this free food program, which occurs in the middle of my Friday workday, so I wasn’t sure what it would look like to readers if I went myself.

Between rent, my car payment and my school loans, though, I really felt like I needed to at least try it.

I finally mustered up the courage to go about four weeks ago when the program was being held at OLE Health on Pear Tree Lane. I rationalized that I needed to pick up a prescription from their pharmacy anyway.

Just before 2 p.m., a small line started to gather behind the health campus, which I timidly joined. I had to give some information to a woman with a clipboard – my name, my ZIP code and the number of people in my household. After admitting on paper that I was only a household of one and don’t even live in Napa – I live in Vallejo – I looked up at her waiting to be turned away.

But I wasn’t.

I told myself that it was OK to receive the food because I do work in Napa. I also told myself that it’s OK to be young and in need of some help. I’m sick of rotating my meals between ramen, pasta, and grilled cheese. Some fruits and vegetables – typically too expensive for me – would be a welcome addition to my diet.

Still, even with all my rationalizing, as I approached each person handing out potatoes, onions and pears, I felt like I shouldn’t be there. I shouldn’t need this and I shouldn’t be taking this food away from people who need it more.

Many of the people in line were Spanish-speaking, Latino families – mothers with children wrapped around their legs. Who am I to take food away from their babies?

I wondered how it looked for me – a white woman in her late twenties wearing decent clothes and driving a newer Honda Fit – to be standing in this line, accepting this handout. I’m a reporter at a newspaper – what will people think if they recognize me?

Awkwardly, I thanked everyone and walked my haul back to my car where I started to cry.

As a child, my family received food stamps and free lunch at school. At the holidays, a truck would drop off a turkey and cranberry sauce along with other canned and boxed food items.

Now, college educated and with a job that I love, here I am still in need of help. Here I am, still feeling the sting of poverty.

I continued to rationalize.

I have student loans.

I bought my car when I was living in North Carolina, where rent was a quarter of the cost. I had no choice because the hooptie I had been driving was unreliable and, more than once, it broke down on the side of the highway in the middle of my work day. My car, although new, is still a less expensive model compared to other new cars and I make hefty payments on it.

California isn’t cheap. No one can afford to live here, right? This is part of the reason we have a housing crisis and so many people on Medi-Cal, right?

It’s not just me. Over the past few weeks, I’ve continued to look around at the other people I stand in line with. It’s a little different each time, depending on the location, but most of the time there are plenty of people with nicer vehicles than me, nicer clothes than me and nicer haircuts – ones they probably don’t do themselves while standing over the bathroom sink.

A great lesson from this is not to judge others on how they look. Just because someone is wearing designer clothes, doesn’t mean they aren’t going hungry. I know firsthand that it’s possible to get a Michael Kors jacket or some Lucky Brand Jeans for less than $10 at the thrift store.

Now when I stand in the “food line” I still feel it – the guilt and the shame – but it’s beginning to go away. It’s OK to need help. And it’s OK to admit it. And, someday, when I don’t need to anymore, maybe I’ll be the one handing out cantaloupe alongside recipe books and winter hats.

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Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. Jersey Girl runs every other Sunday. Follow her on Twitter at @RiaSestito or email her at msestito@napanews.com.


Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.