Volunteering with Feeding America: A Little Time Goes a Long Way

A couple weeks ago I was able to volunteer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository with Feeding America. You can sign up as a group or an individual for a three hour Wednesday night volunteering session and it was perfect for me.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) is one of the largest food banks in the country. They serve more than 678,000 people with more than 69 million pounds of food including 18 million pounds of produce each year.

Some basic things to know:

  • Last year the Greater Chicago Food Depository distributed 69 million pounds of food to their network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Cook County.
  • 1 in 6 people in Cook County is food insecure—not sure of where their next meal will come from—845,910 people are food insecure.
  • In some Chicago neighborhoods and Cook suburbs, the food insecurity rate is as high as 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.

Here’s an example of a box of food (above) that will feed a small family in crisis for 3-4 days.

Two volunteers are assigned to each station along the assembly line to pack boxes.  So there would be two “peanut butter” people. One person puts the item in the box – let’s call that person the “packer” — and the other person unwraps the pallets of products and puts them out for easy grabbing – let’s call that person the “feeder.” I was the “feeder” for the tomato soup station, which I thought was much easier work than the man who put cans in the box. The conveyor belt moves quickly – you have to on your toes.

The volunteer mix on the Wednesday I was there included organized groups from various companies, individuals, and a devoted group of retirees who come every single week.

When the boxes are packed, they move farther along the line to be labeled, stacked, and then wrapped up in a large square pallet ready for pick up by member agencies.

Here’s the finished box just before it’s labeled and sealed. This box will go to someone who is hungry to take it home. Large food banks guarantee that certain staple foods are available for member food pantries. Every food bank has a different list of guaranteed items. The Greater Chicago Food Depository has a list of eighteen items that it will provide to its affiliates. The detailed list is coming up, but you can see that these foods include peanut butter, jelly, tomato soup, rice, powdered milk, tuna, sardines, mac and cheese, and saltine crackers.

What happens when you donate the odd can of soup from your kitchen cabinet to a food drive? I’ve often wondered what food banks do with the odd box of panko bread crumbs. Or what if a food company has half a truck of a product that’s going out of code in a month – too soon for a retailer to take, but perfectly edible? And all those products that get dented and slightly crumpled at the grocery store and don’t get put on the shelf? All of those products do not appear on the food bank’s list of staple foods, but they take them and distribute them to member agencies, like food pantries and soup kitchens. Your donations first are sorted in the salvage room (below) by some of the few paid employees of the GCFD (they rely on volunteers).

The warehouse is massive and filled with food and other products that are ready for people in need (below).

The GCFD also operates the “Produce Mobile” (above), which drives to communities in need and gives fresh food to people who are hungry. (I was told that the trucks they use for this program were beer trucks in a former life!)

Aside from feeding hungry people, the other equally important mission of the GCFD is to break the cycle of hunger by giving people skills that help them not only feed their own families, but give them the ability to find a job. It’s called “Chicago Community Kitchens.” Every year GCFD graduates 120 people with the culinary training to find work as cooks in restaurants and cafeterias throughout the city. It’s just as important to give hungry people food as it is to help people move into the ranks of the food secure.

In addition to Chicago Community Kitchens, GCFD also provide meals through the Kids Cafe program, produce to older adults through the Older Adults program and SNAP outreach to help individuals and families apply for the “food stamp” program.

The night I volunteered, the volunteer group packed more than 32,000 lbs of food to be given to families in crisis.

Next week… The 18 items that GCFD guarantees to member agencies and what to do with the food pantry staples…

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7 thoughts on “Volunteering with Feeding America: A Little Time Goes a Long Way

  1. This was really interesting! I’ve volunteered at a food bank only once, at least 5 years ago, and all I really remember was packing frozen corn. I have always wondered about “that odd box of panko bread crumbs”, too 🙂 I also love that there’s a program for helping people become food-secure, because I firmly believe in the old adage, “if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Either way, some people will need help… but if we help them the right way they won’t need help forever. If we “teach them to fish” then maybe eventually they can go out and help others, too, and someday we might reach a point where no one *has* to miss even a single meal. Thanks!

  2. Very interesting post! I’d love to do this sort of volunteering where I live, and I wonder — is there a website or some other central resource where people can look up the contact information to find out how to volunteer at food banks in their own cities?

    1. If you search “food bank” (or “food pantry” and your city or state’s name, you can find locations in your area. Call them up to find out about volunteer opportunities. Thanks for asking!!

  3. I work at a food bank on the west coast and just wanted to thank you for bringing awareness to hunger in America and about how food banks are working to end hunger with the help of volunteers like you.

  4. Feeding America and it’s affiliates, like the Chicago Food Depository, do great work. And those working to feed the poor have hearts of gold. However, even if providing cooking skills and advice on securing employment, aren’t we still dealing with symptoms rather than getting to the root of the issues? For 10,000 years we struggled to grow enough calories, some places more than ever. Today, with a global food system, we grow far more food than enough to feed the world, yet nearly 1B go to bed hungry each night- and nearly the same number struggle to find enough work to lift them from poverty.

    The current system uses fossil fuels, chemicals and machines to grow, process and distribute food. It’s resource intensive, but requires little labor. It produces cheap food, but only because of enormous subsidies (direct subsidies, like payments and tax breaks and indirect subsidies, like not having to pay for the costs of pollution. Rather than provide charity, in growing amounts, to the poor and the working poor, might it make sense to question the system that concentrates wealth and distributes poverty? If an organization is headed by those with a stake in maintaining the status quo (e.g. take a look at the board members) is it possible?

    Love & Peas,
    Tim Magner

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