How A Food Bank Works, and Why Donations are Important

Before this AmeriCorps year, I would occasionally give a can or two during a canned food drive. In high school, bribery in the form of extra credit might have convinced me enough to bring a few more. I didn’t give much thought to where the food was going, who would eat it, or why people didn’t just go buy their own food. In college, I volunteered occasionally at Rescue Missions, soup kitchens, and food banks, but even these opportunities did not show me the big picture of the true food services industry.As some of you may know, part of what I am doing this year involves serving in a small food bank. Often this translates to me sorting and weighing donations, organizing shelves of food, and occasionally assisting clients when they walk through our doors. I have helped to distribute dish and laundry soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, diapers, razors, and of course, quite a range of food options. I have seen our food bank almost empty, and today, after our biggest food drive event of the year, I have seen it full. It is exciting to see all of these stockpiles of food, and it warms my heart to know that they are donations from a community where most people struggles to pay both their rent and utility bills every month. I imagine we received almost half a ton of food today, which is great! But when I think about the fact that this food has to last until the middle of next year, I get nervous. I know how many people come into our food bank, and even when I see this holiday inspired generosity, I have my doubts about our stock lasting as long as it needs to. Now that I have had a few months to gain a wider perspective about food banks, I have resolved to generously donated multiple times a year to food banks, because I see how great the need is. I know that November and December draw in lots of donations for everything as people joyfully give and receive, but I also know about July and August, and that somehow when people are worried about vacations and bank to school clothes, it becomes easy to forget about the hungry people living in our communities.

In the almost four months that I’ve been serving in this capacity, I’ve seen a lot of food come in, and a lot of food go out. I’ve seen local farmers bring in fresh produce, Panera donate their day-old bread, and community members who come in for their volunteer shift each week to help our food bank run smoothly. I knew that Panera donated their day-old bread. The big donor that we have whose presence surprised me was Costco. It is well known that Costco has an easy return policy–if you don’t want/need something, or if it breaks, you can usually return it for a full refund. Costco can’t then sell this product back in their stores, so what do they do? They give it to us. Once a week we get an assortment of products that a community member kindly picks up for us from Costco. We get clothes, vitamins, lotions and reading glasses, blankets, candy, laundry soap and diapers. Sometimes we get things like shoes or in soles, books, or cookware. It’s exciting to see these things and to know that someone’s life might be just a little easier because of their ability to obtain these items through our food bank that they would otherwise be unable to own.

I’ve learned a lot about food banks in their period of time. The first thing I learned was not to make assumptions about what “type” of person would use a food bank. Had you asked me in the summer to describe what I thought someone who used a food bank looks like, I probably would’ve described a homeless man with a beard and grungy clothes. Now that I’ve been here a while, I see that actually the people who make use of the food bank most are young single mothers, immigrant families, and elderly women. These are groups that I now largely see as having the most difficult time finding a job, no matter what the economy looks like. They are allowed to visit our food bank twice a month and once for government commodities to take free food, in proportion to their family size, depending on what we have received as a donation.

I encourage you to get into the holiday spirit and donate now to whatever charity is close to your heart, be it Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Salvation Army, or your local food bank. But I also encourage you to donate your time, and your resources, all year round, in order to gain greater understanding of the needs around you, and to serve the poor and needy, as we all ought to do.