Giving Back: Food Banks Feed My Soul

I’d like to share with you some of my favorite Food Bank moments: When moms are brought to tears of joy because you have offered them a birthday cake or cupcakes to celebrate a child’s birthday, when they otherwise wouldn’t have one. Seeing the humility and gratitude in older couples who have farmed all their lives to feed all of us, yet now need a little help themselves. The hope in people trying to re-build lives after suffering with addictions. The trust from women, men and children escaping from abusive situations. I can barely write this without crying, as I see all their faces, young and old, each carrying their own pain and story that brought them through our pantry door.

One of the most humorous moments I had at the food bank was when a young girl who came through, pregnant with a toddler or two in tow. She was a tiny thing, her hair tied up in a little pony-tail, and sweet as she could be. As I went over to the place where we were boxing up food items for her, I could tell she got a little fidgety and nervous. So, one of the precious, intuitive volunteers in the pantry with me asked her, “Honey, do you know how to cook this meat?” And she said, “No, Ma’am, I don’t.” Well, that was that. She then got a full-on immersion love lesson on the blessed use of a crockpot. That taught me more about not lapsing into the routine of food distribution but truly considering each person walking through the door as a fresh challenge and canvas of information. Do they live in town? Do they have a vehicle or a ride to get all these boxes and bags home? Do they have any appliances, pots or pans to prepare food with? Do they have refrigerated food storage? (Some people use ice chests, or we send them with one.) And now, last but not least, do they know what to do with the food when they get it home? Note to Government: Maybe there should be a volunteer program where people can learn about nutrition and food preparation at local Food Banks?  (Please don’t tax me for this idea.)

These are some things I didn’t ever think about until I worked at the food bank: Some people live in motels because it is cheaper than rent. Translation: they may not have refrigeration, microwave, stove, or oven access. Some people are transients or in the process of relocating. Translation: Same as above scenario, so distributing perishables isn’t an option. Some families will all move in together to save on rent. Translation: We could be filling out an order for 12-15 people. Some people don’t know how to cook! Translation: Need instructions!

These moments and too many others to recount here make me realize that serving at the food bank feeds not only those in need, but my own soul as well. I haven't always volunteered at one; it's still a relatively new adventure for me, one that has become an important part of my life. Raised to give with a happy heart, I have always been a volunteer of one sort or the other. But as my nest emptied from 4 young children to just one high-schooler, it was time to spread my volunteer wings from “little kid” activities (all the school committees, all the church children's classes, nursery duty, and sports committees) to start including some community volunteering, other than just giving financially and serving on boards. No, I haven’t given up all my school, sports and church activities….don’t panic! But, I definitely went through and edited my list so I could make room for some new adventures in giving. So how did I get involved with the Food Bank?

During the winter months when it is snowy and icy, our volunteer population takes a dip congruently with the dropping thermometer. So there are always announcements in the church bulletin and in the local paper for organizations urgently needing help, the Food Bank being one of them. Sign-up sheets hung in locations like church lobbies, teachers’ lounges, National Honor Society classrooms, and the Senior Center, beckoning volunteers. I heard the announcement in church one Sunday and decided that this was the next frontier for me. 

My first rookie afternoon time slot was to be 1-3 pm. I was a little nervous since I knew no one in the organization, and none of my friends or relatives (that I knew of) had ever volunteered in this venue. Life lesson: Just let fear fuel my sense of curiosity and commitment to try something new! On my assigned day, I made my way through the cars in the snowy parking lot, and the gathering of pantry " guests" were starting to arrive. Some guests and relatives stayed in their cars with babies and little ones to stay warm, waiting for the pantry door to open. I knocked on the door and someone opened it and said, "Honey, we are not open yet." I just stood and looked at her, but then I burst out laughing and replied, "I'm here to help!" It turned out to be a great ice-breaker. She took me through the different rooms that lined the main passage and introduced me to the paid and volunteer staff. Note to self: Wear make-up and fix hair differently next time.

Our local Food Bank has many different areas, which serve separate purposes.  The doors open into a reception room with rows of stacked metal chairs where the guests file in and wait to be called into the business office, then later, back to the pantry. The business office is where the intake process happens. People are called in, they fill out an application, and their data is entered into the computerized system. Their food item list is then filled out with the help of an office staff person. He or she take into account all types of information, such as whether or not the applicant has diabetes, if he or she is on a low sodium diet, if there is an infant who needs formula or baby food, and how many people are in this household. Beyond the business office are the stocking rooms where the food items are kept, donated by grocery stores and retail giants like Walmart and Target, as well as by local individuals. Here, those items are unpacked, sorted, and shelved by expiration dates. These rooms also have deep freezers where meats and frozen meals are stored, and multiple refrigerators with milk, eggs, butter and yogurts. A long hall is lined with shelves filled with food and miscellaneous cooking supplies, coats, and other household items. The hallway walls are stacked with boxes of bakery goods, which are brought in that day from local stores.

The volunteer positions for our Food Bank are to fill the pantry station, ideally a job for 3 people: a person to man the bread station, box haulers, shelf stockers, and drivers/loaders/unloaders who retrieve the food from the local grocery and box stores. After people are ushered and welcomed into the pantry room, the volunteers fill boxes and bags with perishables, such as dairy, eggs, and meats. The other two people fill out the remainder of the “grocery list” with canned items and baked goods, such as veggies, fruits, sauces, boxed meals, bread, and cereal. We then write their initials on the boxes and bags and set them on shelves in the hallway where the pantry guest completes his list at the last volunteer station.

After I had served my 4 Wednesday afternoons there, I had to admit it had been a great experience. Then the phone rang and sweet Evelynn (she and her husband, Bob, are the directors of our local pantry) asked if I would fill in for a volunteer “regular” who was out for medical reasons. Yippee! So a year and a half later, I became a “regular” myself, orienting and introducing new volunteers to the pantry, making them another part of the Food Bank Family who does whatever needs to be done.

You might be thinking, “I bet some of those people are just freeloaders!” Well, I have had those thoughts over the years, too, especially as I see our governments increase in taxing to fund more government programs. But, with the computerized systems in place these days, and the linkage to all the other government-funded agencies, people are tracked closely, and there is a limit to visits per agency, per month, per year. Do some people find a way to abuse it? Oh, I’m sure it can happen….just like in any system. But the saints that run these places usually know what’s up, and they are not running them to get rich, I can assure you! In my opinion, Food Pantry directors all deserve an award for their service!

At the end of the day, I’m a mom who doesn’t like the idea, or the reality, that people in our own communities are going hungry, or to be politically correct, individuals and families being Food Insecure.

How could you volunteer or donate to a Food Bank near you?  Look here

Check out these movers and shakers in the industry of feeding our own. 

And, of course I haven’t forgotten us App Junkies! Feed your soul here.

Food Bank image sources via Huffington Post, Faith and Victory, In Business Mag, and Mirror News.

What’s your favorite volunteer venue? When or where have you served that brought tears to your eyes? Have you ever been food-insecure? Share with us at the “Counselors’ Cabin”, www.CampMakery.com, or email me your stories at laina@campmakery.com.