This past weekend, I joined my colleagues of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section to volunteer at the Maryland Food Bank.
When we arrived, we were given an introduction about the facility and its needs in one of its conference rooms. We then headed toward the warehouse portion of the building. I was surprised at how beautiful and modern the facility was.
We then went into the “cold” warehouse. I use the phrase “cold” loosely; everyone else was freezing but it felt a lot like the temperature of my house to me. (I felt right at home!)
The folks at the Food Bank gave us a brief introduction as to what we would be doing in the warehouse and, within 10 minutes, they had the 28 volunteers separated into jobs and hard at work.
My job, along with my Bodie coworker, Mariela D’Alessio, was to grab water, sports drinks, sparkling water, pet products, dry seasoning and diet foods from the conveyor belt and sort them into the appropriate boxes. It became this fun, strange game, especially when we saw the motherload of Gatorade bottles tumbling down the conveyor belt toward us, followed by big bags of dog food and a few cases of sparkling water.
Would we be able to pull everything off? Were we going to be quick enough? What if we failed???
Obviously, the items would just circle back to us if we missed them on the first pass, but Mariela and I were determined not to let one bottle of rosemary seasoning pass us!
When things were particularly slow, the Food Bank employee who I called the “Drill Sergeant” would pull one of us away from our sorting job and move us to another task such as sweeping, handing out water bottles to the other volunteers or building boxes.
While I didn’t appreciate being pulled away from the conveyor belt at the time (I was enjoying catching up with Mariela), I was glad for the Drill Sergeant once I was able to take a step back and get some appropriate perspective.
We weren’t there to catch up with old friends or to play a game. We gave up our Saturday morning to do some good. We were there to help us much as we could in the four hours that we were slated to volunteer.
In the end, I took great comfort in the fact that the Drill Sergeant was there, pushing well-meaning but perhaps unfocused volunteers along. I knew the facility and donations were in good hands with him there.
Just before we left, the Drill Sergeant gathered us around him and thanked us again for our services. He told us every job was important, from sweeping to building boxes to sorting the donations. He told us that the Maryland Food Bank uses less than 10 percent of its donations for overhead (the building, utilities, salaries, etc.), something almost unheard of in the world of nonprofits and charities.
The Drill Sergeant spoke of a culinary skills training program, “Food Works,” that happens in the facility’s kitchen. Students enroll for 12 weeks, are trained in food service and given a food safety certificate at the end of the program.
I loved this unexpected aspect of the Food Bank. It’s the whole “teach a man to fish” thing. Not only is the Maryland Food Bank helping our community by giving out food, it is teaching marketable skills to members of our community so that they can provide for themselves and for their families.
In that same kitchen, a full-time chef and staff cook entrees that are later frozen and distributed to people in need. A large amount of the food donations that come into the Food Bank are canned and packaged products and I am certain that the people who receive food from the Maryland Food Bank appreciate the option of a premade, home-cooked meal.
Another program that the Maryland Food Bank has initiated is the “Farm to Food Bank.” Recognizing that many farmers have to toss out tons of produce each year because they simply cannot pick it all, the Maryland Food Bank suggested to farmers that they allow minimum custody criminal offenders to pick excess crops from their fields for the Food Bank. The program continues to gain in popularity and more and more farmers are taking part.
In addition to allowing prisoners to pick crops, some farmers have opted to simply donate a certain amount of fresh produce to the Food Bank and others have volunteered to grow specific produce that it needs the most.
This is the time of year that food and clothing donation boxes appear in office buildings and people volunteer in soup kitchens. I’m sure it was no coincidence that the MSBA organized this volunteer opportunity at the Maryland Food Bank this close to the holidays. We all seem to recognize that, in being thankful for what we have, we can’t forget about those who “have not.”
But, as the Drill Sergeant reminded us, people aren’t just hungry over the holidays. Whether during this holiday season or throughout the year, get a group of friends, family or coworkers together and volunteer on a Saturday for a few hours at the Maryland Food Bank. Or check out its website and consider donating food or money.