Capital Area Food Bank, Washington, D.C.
I felt as if I were on "the yellow brick road" driving up Puerto Rico Ave, NE to the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB). This place certainly knows how to greet their volunteers and get them excited! In fact, with over 26,000 volunteers a year, they really have the entire volunteer experience down pat!
The CAFB is the largest organization in the D.C. Metro area working to solve hunger and related issues such as diabetes, obesity, and chronic undernutrition. Through over 400 partners across the DMV and about 125 staff members, CAFB provides over 52 million pounds of food, including 17 million pounds of fresh produce, to over 540,000 people a year. Many smaller food banks, church programs, shelters, and soup kitchens receive food from CAFB to serve their clients...
Though there are many programs within the CAFB, today, I worked on the Grocery Plus Program. This program provides 30-40 lbs of healthy groceries on a monthly basis to seniors 60 years or over who live in the District of Columbia and meet certain income requirements. Next to children, senior citizens are the most vulnerable group at risk for hunger. Over the past 10 years, the rate of seniors at risk for hunger increased 50%.
As I arrived to the back of the warehouse, (after being greeted in the magnificent Marriott Volunteer Center equipped with an iPad sign-in station and dining area), I was assigned to the green beans - pallets upon pallets of canned green beans! About 8 others stood alongside of me, each in front of their tower of boxes, cartons, or cans. In front was a long roller-assembly table and our supervisor. Nothing was done until our instructions were delivered and a sample box was packed. Like Noah's Ark, we each added items systematically 2 by 2 - juice, boxed milk, applesauce, peaches, carrots, MY green beans, boxes of Farina, pasta, peanut butter, and powered milk. The line had a great pace that allowed for good conversation, interaction, quality control, and ease. At some points, however, it moved so fast that it reminded me of the I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode. There was the occasional lull when someone stumbled to open a new pallet or forgot to put their items in. As we completed each finished pallet, it was wrapped and taken away by forklift. Typically, the program packs almost 1400 boxes and I believe in my 3 hour shift, we did over 300.
When we finished, "newbies" like myself gathered to learn about CAFB and the Grocery Plus Program. Not only did the staff know so much about CAFB, they knew so much about food insecurity in general. They were aware of proposed federal legislation and its impacts as well as about budgets and the overall "business" of food distribution. These employees were VERY invested in the process, mission, and really got us invested as well, so much so that someone volunteered to take me on a tour after I was done. The 123,000 square foot facility is jaw dropping. It was designed well and is utilized even better. Outside, there is a garden and teaching gazebo and inside, inspiring work areas and reception stations, a pantry for partner organizations to shop in and of course, the Costco-on steroids food storage space.
I left CAFB today feeling so inspired, motivated, and truly grateful for my experience. This nonprofit organization really hit all of the marks and should be a model for others - not because of "what" they have (clearly, a lot of money goes into this place) but because "how" they do what they do!
My Takeaways: (1) Getting volunteers invested in an organization and its cause is critical for volunteer development, experience, and retention. It's relatively easy to do through education and yet it's often not done as regularly or as thoughtfully as it was at here. Yes, resources are limited and work can be endless but organizations are often missing out on the opportunity to really engage their interested and captive audience about the needs, obstacles, and "the" cause. Just spending 10 minutes at the end of my work session inspired me to seek more and will inspire me to DO more. (2) I walked into a group with a lot of "regulars" and was reminded that to them, I am an uncertain guest with something to prove. Though it's okay to show enthusiasm, I need to remember to enter my new environment with respect, deference, and an open ear and mind. This is not my turf and "regulars" may be understandingly skeptical of me who comes in and out of their special place! They often have a particular way of doing things and aren't looking for someone to quickly offer a "brilliant" idea for doing it better! In time, I usually win them over because they see that I genuinely want to learn and be productive. (3) The quality of conversation around this assembly table today was remarkable. We talked politics, community, and world events. Volunteering is a great environment to interact with a lot of interesting and diverse people. Join in on a good conversation why don't you?!