Manna Food Center, Montgomery County's Food Bank
The best bank in town turns out to be right around the corner on Gaither Road in Gaithersburg -- Manna Food Center, our county's food bank. Though I'd been there before to drop off donations, I knew nothing about its inner workings. After working 3 - 6hr shifts, I still now only have a glimpse of how this fabulous place operates, but I'm very impressed!
A buzz with the sounds of Motown, the warehouse is in full swing when I arrive each morning. The palates of fresh produce are waiting for us to prepare the 179 boxes that line the perimeter of our work station on tall racks. 100 boxes of perishables, non-perishables, and meat will leave the warehouse by 11am to be delivered to satellite locations and the remaining 79 will stay here to be distributed between 12 and 3pm. The rhythm and fast pace of the warehouse takes some getting used to. Rule #1 - Glove up; Rule #2 - Don't get in anyone's way, especially Miss Sunshine's (pictured lower left); Rule #3 - Do quality control as you go composting what cannot be used; Rule #4 - Reach high and bend low to evenly disperse the perishables of the day (typically potatoes, onions, greens, berries, apples, tomatoes, squash, and random cheeses and cold cuts) to each of the 179 boxes; Rule #5 - Break down boxes and clean up as you go; Rule #6 - Stay out of the way of the busy forklifts and keep the door to the walk-in fridge closed. After fumbling only a few potatoes and putting the occasional item in that Miss Sunshine deems unfit, the boxes are all packed and I am moved to the vats of bread and desserts to check "best by" dates.
I LOVE the pace, the work, and the company of my fellow volunteers. I feel charged. It's like mowing the lawn - you feel productive because you can see the benefit of your work as you go and you feel tried and achy but for a good reason! Best of all, by the lunch break, I felt the approval of the staff and seasoned volunteers. The ones that work there regularly must see many volunteers come and go so they are a bit of a tough group to break into. I felt like I was on the right track with these vets and that my attitude and effort was being well received.
At noon, we head into the lobby where there is already a long line of clients waiting to check in. Reservations must be made in advance, clients must qualify financially, bring a picture ID and proof of county residence, and may only come once every 30 days. Miss Sunshine checks them in one by one and we are there to great each one with a shopping cart filled with a bag of frozen meat, a closed box of dry goods (beans, cereal, rice, etc.), the box of produce we packed that day, and any daily surplus items like milk, eggs, or watermelons. We pass the bread and pastry section where they are permitted to make their own selections. Pastries are limited to 1-2 depending on the daily supply and bread that is plentiful is typically unlimited. When ready, we escort each client out to their car and load their vehicles. This is the scene EVERY M-F and one Saturday a month at Manna where they serve almost 4,000 families a month! It is beyond remarkable.
While I waited in queue to load my cart and greet my next client, I studied the line. There were people of all races, cultures, ages, and education levels here -- men, women, parents, children, people who dressed well, came from work, people who looked like me! Everyone was different but had one thing in common -- they faced some amount of food insecurity that brought them here. Most everyone I helped expressed their sincere appreciation and often left me with a big smile and a, "God Bless You." This personal interaction was of course the highlight and has left me with thoughts and memories I will not soon forget. For that reason (as well as my 3 days of service), I have more "Takeaways" than usual.
My Takeaways: (1) Something more must be done about America's problem with food insecurity. For some clients, the one shopping cart of food filled the small gap that they encounter on a monthly basis. For others, multiple food providers (Manna only being one of them) must be pieced together in order to feed their families. Hunger should not be a first world problem, it shouldn't be anyone's problem; (2) Most of the clients I served HAD A JOB and still had to line up for food donations! I packed many trunks that contained cleaning equipment and supplies (they were our house cleaners) or had tools and/or construction equipment in them. This is the working poor -- people we know and who we interact with but who can't feed their families. Perhaps the most troubling thing for me to see was a man who works at my local grocery store in line with his mother to get food. This man works in a grocery store filled with food and he doesn't have enough for himself. Many of the items I packed in his shopping cart were from the grocery store he worked in!!! What a missed opportunity for employers to match resources to their needy employees. Can we improve on that?; (3) People down on their luck are often far more grateful, happy, patient, and pleasant than those who are more fortunate. One woman I walked out couldn't stop thanking me and expressing her gratitude for Manna's help. She told me how happy her 3 children would be when she brought home the large danish tray from Costco. She said that even in better financial times, this item would have been too expensive and indulgent to bring home. She went on to say that though she just lost her house and declared bankruptcy, when her finances turned around, she wanted to return to Manna as a volunteer. Really? I want to be more positive, appreciative, and patient like this woman. God Bless HER!; (4) Last but not least, I have to give a huge shout out to the men I volunteered with. I've worked and volunteered with several non-profits and community service projects and see mostly women. Why is it always women who give their time to these efforts? Where are the men? Typically, I think good-hearted men often make financial donations and/or support their wives, daughters, and friends doing this sort of work and aren't the ones rolling up their sleeves. Why? Men are so helpful to community service. First, it was so nice to have their company and perspectives. Our conversations were varied and different than the usual "tell me about your children...". Second, their muscle was much appreciated as we had 50 pound bags of potatoes to empty and move around (not to be sexist, but I have a bad back!). Lastly, men are great models and ambassadors for the clients themselves. This posse of 4 retired men that I worked with many of my days at Manna volunteer several times a week and were truly inspirational. What a great use of their time. There were also two young men who were volunteering as part of their high school internship programs. I hope the men in my life will follow suit. Get on it boys!!
I love this place and will continue to volunteer here. There are other jobs I'd like to try here as well to see the different aspects of this terrific organization. Think about joining me!