Blogger’s Note: This post is dedicated to raising awareness about hunger. The campaign, Food Bloggers Against Hunger, comes in response to the documentary “A Place at the Table,” about hunger in America (Links from of the New York Times article).
I’ve always wanted to volunteer in a food bank dining room. Since I’ve re-discovered the joys of cooking, my desire to volunteer in a dining room, particularly the kitchen, is more. I have always felt that giving your time and skills and connecting to those who are in need would be extremely fulfilling.
Last fall, along with six others from work, I had an opportunity to volunteer for Loaves and Fishes, a local food bank dining room. We started at 9:15 am and after completing the necessary forms and orientation, began work almost immediately. Work was hard and almost non-stop. We set-up and cleaned the tables, prepared the bread and the salads (both vegetable and fruit salad), and hand-cut the pre-made desserts. I was assigned to cut and put margarine on the bread, so none of my (healthy) cooking experience applied. In fact, my ‘bread partner’ suggested that we put as much margarine on the bread to give each diner as many calories as possible.
A line was already forming before the dining room opened at 11 am. Once the dining room opened, we started serving. We were a bit slow at first, but then we got into a rhythm. When things slowed down, I took a break. It was around noon, and I was already tired – a good tired though. I just did not realize it until I stopped moving.
· The main course has good yet inexpensive protein in it. When we were there on Monday, we were serving red beans and rice (with bits of chicken). My friends said that the rice and beans were good. I am allergic to legumes, so I did not have any. I can’t imagine - if someone who cannot afford to purchase food also has allergies to the meal of the day. That person may be stuck with just a green salad and fruit for that entire day.
· Families, most likely single parent families, take advantage of the free lunches. I remember helping a young mother with a baby and two other small children – my goodness; she had her hands full, in more ways than one.
· The dining room gets the most people close to the end of the month. This is when folks are running out of money to buy food and need the most help.
· Because of these tough economic times, even working people take advantage of these free weekly lunches. These are the working poor. I saw several folks in scrubs with their families. These are clearly people with jobs, but just cannot afford three meals a day.
· The homeless people took advantage of the free loaves of bread available for their taking. A loaf of bread can be easily transported and can last two or three days unrefrigerated. Since the dining room is only open at lunch, the bread can help to relieve their hunger at breakfast or dinner. In addition to bread, we also gave to-go containers of red beans and rice to those in need. These containers were usually recycled containers of cottage cheese or sour cream or even disposable pie tins.
· For beverages, we had milk, water, and some sort of fruit punch made from the leftover fruit cocktail syrup and powdered juice mix. It had a murky purple color and did not look very appetizing. Surprisingly, or maybe not, people still drank it. Hopefully, through donations and subsidies from the state, some better beverages can be obtained, moving forward.
· The dining room is only open during the week, Monday through Friday, for lunch. How will these needy people eat during the weekend?
· Dessert is such an equalizer: even the hungry folks love desserts, especially chocolate. Loaves and Fishes get donations from local grocery stores and even gourmet cupcake bakeries (the cupcakes looked and tasted really good – I had one). The desserts that they get are probably not the healthiest, but that is probably the least of their concerns. I mentioned that I love to bake, and would like to donate some of my cookies and brownies, from time to time. The dining room manager said that they would accept desserts if they know the person providing them.
· When serving anyone in need, be sure you are wearing a smile. It may be the first or only smile that they have seen in a long time. At the very same time, be respectful. Just because they are in need of some food, it does not mean that they do not need and deserve respect too.
We fed almost 200 people that day: served almost two huge trays of beans and rice, one and half trays of buttered bread, tons of green salad, a tray of fruit salad, and lots of “fruit punch.” The loaves of bread in the huge shelves were gone at the end of service. The dining room manager said that they rely on sales from the attached thrift shop, their volunteers, and some public donations. Clearly this is not enough. More resources are needed to ensure that hunger is eliminated in this country. We are one of the most prosperous nations in the world; it is rather embarrassing, let alone quite sad, to have our own in this country sleep without a decent meal.
I am hoping to volunteer again this year, if not there, at the County Food Bank (I have some medical issues that may prevent me from volunteering at the Dining Room this year). I learned a lot from my volunteer experience at Loaves and Fishes: hunger is not necessarily limited to those who are homeless or unemployed, but may also include people who have jobs and/or do not have enough resources to feed themselves or their families. At the end of the day, I was with mixed feelings about the experience. It was so sad to see the face of hunger in my own backyard, but yet, I felt much fulfillment in my being able to provide some help, at least just for one day.