Last week I shared with you some of the things I learned from a recent tour of a local food shelf, and led you on the journey that food takes from donation to dinner. This week I’m going to share with you more of the things I learned from my visit to the Anoka County Brotherhood Council (ACBC) food shelf and tell you the one thing the food shelf wants you to know.
My visit to ACBC was full of surprises. I had been there before, but that was years ago and a lot has changed in the way they operate. Since that long-ago visit, my food shelf experience has pretty much been limited to my church’s mini food shelf, not a big operation like ACBC. So here are some of the surprises and things I learned.
- The food shelf buys food: When I arrived at ACBC, there was a semi-truck from Second Harvest Heartland unloading pallets of food. Jeri, my tour guide, explained that Second Harvest and Food Group (formerly EFN) work with corporate donors like retailers and food producers to secure large quantities of discounted goods. The local food banks, in turn, use donated and fundraised monies to buy the items for less than half of retail cost. This means that no matter what food donations come in, ACBC can always be supplied with the basics.
- ACBC takes perishables, too: This does not apply to all food banks, so check before you include perishables in your donation. ACBC has fresh produce, eggs, milk, and even meat. Selection varies, of course, depending on availability. Most of the perishables they have are from retailers, but they welcome garden produce, so if you have a bumper crop, ask your local food shelf if they want it. Donated produce is examined by a volunteer, and if it looks good enough that the volunteer would serve it to his or her family, it goes on the shelf for clients. (Food banks cannot take home canned goods, so check about produce before you process)
- Pet Food? Clothes? Diapers and personal hygiene items? – Yes!: ACBC accepts pet food, and when they have it available, pet owners can take a dog or cat item in addition to their regular choices. They also have used clothing, baby layettes, diapers and personal hygiene items, and birthday bags thanks to local civic groups that partner with ACBC to offer these goods. This is huge because these items are not covered by food stamps, and they really add up! What additional items are accepted will vary from one food bank to another, so ask before you drop things off.I know some of you are thinking – If someone can’t feed their family, why would they have a pet or another baby? Keep in mind that most food shelf users come just a couple times a year, to tide them through a crisis or low season. If one happens to have a pet or a baby in diapers during that low season, the local food shelf can help supply those needs as well.
- The food shelf needs volunteers: ACBC has around 160 volunteers that perform a variety of tasks, from unloading trucks to serving clients in the “store.” They especially need volunteers in the winter because many of their senior volunteers go somewhere warm for the season (Yes, I’m jealous…), and need is high during this off season for many professions. Obviously, if you live in a warm climate that will be the opposite as more trades can work year-round, and your seniors head north for the summer when kids are out of school and need more meals at home.
- The food shelf wants condiments and baking supplies: Obviously the most important things that a food bank provides are basics like cereal, soup, and canned veggies. This is their biggest need from donors. But according to Jeri, they always wish that they had more condiments, salad dressings, seasonings, and baking supplies. These things sound frivolous, perhaps, but they complement the basics. People are more likely to eat the greens they get if they have dressing for them!
The biggest thing that the food shelf wants you to know is that they are completely dependent on community support, and that they are so thankful for the donors, volunteers, and civic organizations that make their mission a reality.
So here’s what I’m doing different now that I know these things:
-My food shelf donations are basics that I get based on my family’s Food Shelf Friday meals. That won’t change, but I am going to throw in an extra item every week, like pet food, spices, or condiments. It’s not vital, but if it brings a little joy to the volunteers who see it or the clients who take it home, it’s easily worth an extra dollar or two.
– When I’m done with my thesis (I’m 30 pages into it and aiming to have it done by May, if not sooner!), I’m going to become a regular volunteer at the food bank. Volunteering is good for the soul because it keeps you focused on others, builds relationships, and strengthens the community.
– In the meantime, I’m going to check in with my church’s little food shelf to see if they need a few hours of my time for sorting or organizing, and to see if they have unmet needs I can supply.
What surprised you about the food shelf? How else can we support their mission? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!