For many reasons, I signed myself up a couple of weeks ago for a volunteer shift at Austin's Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) way down south on South Congress. I thought I signed up my teen as well (for lessons in community, volunteerism, just getting him off the *%^%#$ couch, etc.), but that did not work out. I had no idea what to expect when my 1-4 pm shift on Saturday December 28 came around, but what I got in return were insights far beyond the mere act of volunteering.
If you are looking for some direct-impact volunteer opportunities, consider CAFB. In addition to many opportunities and times to help out, it has family night on the first Tuesday of every month and a Thursday 6-8:30 pm shift for adults who want to help but need a work/family-friendly shift. Here's where you can sign up.
(No cell phones allowed during the volunteer shift. Safety first. No distractions allowed. This was after we were done. View onto just a very small part of the operation and those precious, scarce banana boxes.)
Observations on organization, the food donation system, and how far away we are from a healthy, sustainable food system. Of course CAFB is very much involved in the debate.
1. CAFB: well run and organized.
I did not appreciate beforehand that because we were dealing with food, many health and safety regulations had to be followed. CAFB staff, while hilarious and highly entertaining, took this very seriously. (And by the way, CAFB, the fact our team leaders that day were so utterly talented in the comedic realm, I immediately felt welcome and not as freaked out at why on earth was I here with not a single person I knew to do something I had no idea about.)
One of the fun and inspiring Capital Area Food Bank staff members giving pep talk to her "Team Awesome" of youth and family volunteers: parents there with their young teens for the shift. They did some separate work of separating and packing up canned goods.
2. The CAFB site on South Congress.
This site executes "product recovery." They are a central sorting spot for 300 partner agencies in 21 counties. Food must be sorted, inspected, packed up according to very strict standards and protocols so when agencies order what they need, they get exactly what they ordered according to the needs of that particular agency's community.
As simple as that process sounds, it takes a small village, or Saturday afternoon team of volunteers, to get it done. Sorting food is labor-intensive because there is far more to it than just the sorting. And herein lies the lesson of factory line work, automation, people, teamwork, safety.
CAFB staff organized the volunteers into various parts of the process.
First, a group of us would be the "expediters": they brought huge heavy cardboard boxes of donated frozen foods off of the many pallets and set them down, as needed, in front of the inspectors.
Second, inspector volunteers unpacked the boxes, taking out the foods to inspect them per the many instructions (had to be rock hard frozen for one thing...learned a lot about packaging), with a LOT of guidance at first (see Food Recall point below), then placing the inspected frozen food item on the conveyor belt for sorting (a black sharpie was used to mark out the bar code to preclude resale). Some foods not meeting certain specific standards had to be thrown away. Others could go to the Austin zoo for the lions and tigers and bears.
Because of one rule--ingredients HAVE to be listed on the food item--bin after bin after bin was filled with food that had to be thrown away.
This was not a good day for vegetarians to be on the inspection line. You are handling meats after all, albeit frozen, of many shapes and forms.
[Most disgusting surprise in one of those boxes? A cardboard box just full of nothing but crushed ice and meat parts. Yep, no packaging. No plastic at all: just meat stuffs in the ice. I had to go over and see that for myself. Hey, you, who made that donation: "Not helpful." Off it went to the trash.]
Third, other volunteers packed up the sorted foods into banana boxes, the "lifeblood" of the operation because these boxes are so ideal and thus crucial to the packing, storing, and shipping-out process.
Fourth, as the inspectors went through their boxes, the boxes had to be broken down. I was on that team because I said I was someone who could be trusted with box cutters. This turned out to be not entirely true. It took a few tries to get into the habit of making sure the blade was fully retracted back into the handle before placing it in my back pocket.
[Best trick EVER: in breaking down boxes, take those box cutters and cut out a giant X on the bottom. It will fold up flat in a jiffy.]
Fifth, we had to sort the boxes that we were flattening because they went to different places.
Sixth, as our bins filled up with flattened out cardboard boxes, someone else came and used that pallet-mover thing to bring them out to get baled for recyling by someone named Bertha.
Seventh, someone else's job was to take the banana boxes, which we would bring over to them, and get those stacked up high to be on hand for those doing the sorting and packing up.
Lastly, someone packed up the sorted boxes, weighed them, and then someone else placed them onto pallets to be taken away and into the giant freezer warehouse. We started out slow, but that last hour we moved at a fast, efficient clip, going through 3-4 pallets I think.
Then of course at the end we all cleaned up. A special food-safe sanitizing solution was sprayed all over every surface, and a team of persons wiped everything down. I did some sweeping.
Lessons about our food system
4. Product recalls.
The watch list for foods that were absolutely prohibited from passing on to the community was alarmingly large. I vowed I would never eat food from some of those vendors ever again, and that I would re-dedicate myself to fresh and non-processed food at my house.
5. How to Help, What to Donate.
In making donations to a food pantry, consider what you yourself and your family might want to eat. Peanut butter is a good option to donate. Although we were working frozen food day, and I appreciate how critical well-packaged and well-handled frozen meat can be as a protein source, there is some disgusting stuff out there.
CAFB is performing not just a critical role in getting food to people who need it, but they also are a critical part of taking what a store might throw out and making sure it can still be used. Granted, a lot of waste still occurs in our food system, with a lot of what we were going through making its way still to the trash bins, but still. This is a huge help. Thus the name of the process: "product recovery."
Consume what you yourself buy.
6. Food insecurities, elitism.
At the required break time halfway into the shift, I talked with some other volunteers about our shock at what still had to get thrown away and the type of food donated. Some questioned why there was not healthier food being donated and sent out to the constituent agencies. Why not a simple meal of quinoa and fresh herbs, someone pondered aloud?
Well, even I am not cooking quinoa at home because -- I just don't. Would my 16-year-old son even eat it? Would I just throw it out (more waste--of my time and all the food items that would into it), because he is not eating it?
How do you help people evolve into different or "better" eating habits--or to eat non-industrial, processed foods? How do you fix bad incentives with food stamps subsidies?
I piped in about these being immense problems of infrastructure that very smart, passionate (but realistic) people are working on. These are not simple problems, these questions of who "should" be eating what and how we should be insisting more for healthier processes in how our food makes its way to grocery store shelves.
The debate, even our conversation, almost can't help but be tinged with a certain elitism. We forgot about privileged we are to eat as well as we do and to make the choice to buy a certain way. That privilege comprises not just the money to do so, but the knowledge about how and why it is worth shopping and preparing foods certain ways.
Cannot overstate how fun our CAFB staff leaders were for our shift. I could have sat and picked Tamara's brain for hours for more details on the whole process, the warehouse system, the product recalls, the safety rules, how and why they get the food they do from corporate institutions. The music selections were great during the work shift. She said at the end as she rounded us all up that on the Thursday night adult volunteer shift they play a lot of Bee Gees and Hall & Oates. How awesome does that sound.
We unpacked, inspected, and sorted 2250 pounds of food, which will allow for 1875 meals.
What a great bunch of volunteers. This is the "volunteer name tag ball."
I hear dry goods sorting is extremely complex and requires some serious attention to detail. I can't wait.