Last week I took a tour of a local food shelf. It was a great experience and I’m writing two blog posts about it. Next week we’ll be looking into some new insights I gained from my visit as well as practical things you can do to help, and what the food shelf wants you to know. This week we’re taking a step-by-step look at what happens to your donation after you drop it off at a food shelf. Keep in mind that policies and procedures may vary; this is based on the way things work at the Anoka County Brotherhood Council (ACBC) food shelf here in Minnesota. (Photos from freeimages.com unless otherwise noted)
1. Drop off: So you have collected some things for the food shelf. The first step is to check their website for the hours in which donations are accepted (ACBC keeps separate hours for donations and services). When you arrive you will be greeted by a friendly volunteer or staff person who will weigh your donation and give you a receipt for tax deduction. Normally this is where you exit, but today we’re going to follow your donation on its journey through the food shelf.
2. After your donation is accepted and you go on your way, your items are taken to a sorting room where volunteers (or staff, but more likely volunteers) check the items’ expiration dates and sort them according to what’s inside. Home canned food or food without a label has to be thrown out, and at some food banks, food that is expired has to be tossed out too, to prevent illness. But other food banks have a last chance bin for items that are just past their expiration date. In that case these are extra items that the patrons are allowed to take from in addition to their regular goods, and they do so with the understanding that the items may not be their best and should be examined before consumption.
3. The sorted items are then moved to a shelf in the service area, if they are needed right away, or a storage shelf of like items if it’s something they are well-stocked in at the time.
4. The shelves in the service area are arranged like a grocery store, but instead of prices, the shelves are marked with how many items a client can take. For example, there might be a shelf with many varieties of cereal, and a sign that says, “Family size 1-3, 1 box or bag.” Then the clients can pick the food items their family will actually eat.
5. When the food bank is open to clients, they arrive and “shop” for the items their family enjoys and will actually eat. At ACBC the clients have to show a photo ID that proves they are residents of the food shelf’s coverage area, but they do not have to provide proof of their financial need. They follow the signs for their family size and collect groceries in a cart just like at a regular grocery store. This “choice model” results in less waste because the families select things that fit their taste and any special dietary needs such as gluten-free, low-sodium, or allergies.
6. A staff member or volunteer bags the client’s choices and checks to make sure they stayed within the totals allowed for their family size. (Spoiler alert: the checkout total is always $0). Many seniors living on a fixed income rely on the food bank regularly for years, but most food shelf users come only once or twice, to help their family through a temporary setback or lean season.
So that’s your donation’s journey from the time you bring it in to the food shelf until it nourishes a family at dinnertime. Stay tuned next week to see what else I learned from my visit to the ACBC food shelf. I was surprised in many good ways, and I can’t wait to share it with you!
Do you have experience working with a food shelf? Leave a comment and fill us in on what you learned from your time there!