The Mechanics of Food Assistance in a Grocery Store Line – Dennis Etzel Jr.

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Photo: Peter Bond

what is taking so long? someone asks
with plastic card in hand
I will still hand over supplemental checks
like nails that board up a boat

I call them life savers out of need
even for these staples
while a scan and rescan of each item
ensures eligibility because even if WIC stickers

are misplaced on the shelves the register
has the final say and I am ready so ready
to turn around if someone gives me the drill
or again remarks it must be nice to get free food

I’ll iron out their words with my defenses
hey I’m a working professor and father
adding how I qualify as poor how my wife and I
were drilled at the food assistance office

hammered by every question
from someone who speaks in the tone
of a kindergarten teacher so my boys
will have food at the end of the month

unlike so many children in this town
even the retired chaplain who overheard
kids could get a free lunch
said why don’t they get a job


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Dennis Etzel Jr. lives in Topeka, Kansas with Carrie and the boys where he teaches English at Washburn University. His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, BlazeVOX, Fact-Simile, 1913: a journal of poetic forms, 3:AM, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, and others.

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This poem is from our first print collection
of poetry,  “Thought For Food”, an anthology
benefiting Denver Food Rescue. To support
our fundraiser, please visit this link.

Thought For Food Promotional 1

I’m Not Ready For Curbside – Dennis Etzel, Jr.

blue bricks
Image: The Visuals Project, Charles Deluvio

especially after the last time
our pizza was made by hand
sanitizer, but I believe in second
toppings & chances. I wear my mask
covered with butterflies & wonder
if the young man in the next car
chuckles at me for taking that chance
in nature-filled protection
while he has no fabric for his mouth.
I don’t want to speak for him
as a ventriloquist but I am uneasy
& worried out here in my sky
watching for birds & clouds
& the coming storm that may
or may not happen. Of course
this is me daydreaming
of last year where every surface
was immaculate as we drift
together in a winged migration
back inside. I have to admit
I have cash to pay with & can
include a nice tip as I also have time
to embrace this time. We all can
wait outside together as three birds
swoop in a motion many never do.
After the cashier hands me my pizzas
in their warm boxes, I can pause
one more time here searching
to remember when I offered change
or leftover food to anyone as a cardinal
stops for a discarded crust.


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Dennis Etzel Jr. lives in Topeka, Kansas with Carrie and the boys where he teaches English at Washburn University. His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, BlazeVOX, Fact-Simile, 1913: a journal of poetic forms, 3:AM, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, and others.