Preparing a meal for friends

by

Rupert's working in the lobby before we open the doors for the day. Soon this space will be full of people waiting for food hampers.

When the doors open at eleven a big rush comes through our building. A large number of patrons enter to pick up food hampers, and the warehouse fills up with more people to pack and sort through food. For me this all happens in between answering the phone, explaining the program to first time visitors and trying to figure out how best to accommodate different special diets and requests. But the end result is walking back and forth from my desk to the warehouse between 11 and 4:15 to hand in food slips into a waiting wooden box, where they will be picked up by an awaiting volunteer hamper packer.

This afternoon, we’ve just received a large group of people who just took the number 18 bus here.  There are a few single people, a woman with a stroller and a couple who are here for the first time. Every half hour to an hour we get another bus, and the people who walk, drive, bike or get a ride are often who we serve in between.

When requests slow down we often yell out to the warehouse to let our volunteers know there is a hamper available, because they are often filling time by doing another task in the warehouse. Some volunteers answer back more enthusiastically than others. Take Connie for example, in this situation when the slip drops into the empty box she’ll calls out “Haaamperrrraama!”

Connie and Cheryl packing hampers.

Connie is always good at making sure everyone knows there is a hamper waiting to be packed, if she can’t pack it. But whenever she realizes that the slips have been piling up, after a rush of people have just gotten off the bus, she’ll take off her rubber gloves and put doing dishes on hold to join the other volunteer hamper packers.

Each of them has been doing various tasks around the warehouse like bagging apples, stocking milk into one of our coolers, or sweeping. But now the process of hamper packing begins!

“Excuse me Bob, but I have a person who would like some vegetarian products. Do we have any tofu?” one of them asks our meat department volunteer.

“Oops! I forgot to grab some potatoes, Oscar, can you hand me a ten pound bag?”

“Matt, this person wrote down that they would like some laundry soap.  Is there any?”

Packing hampers is a process, and there is a lot of joy that goes into it. We try to set the tone, but it’s really volunteers that make working here more enjoyable than challenging.

David's just about to grab their dessert.

Our volunteers all recognize that each item they grab makes a world of difference to the patron that they’ll soon pass the box to, as they are usually the last person a program patron will to talk to before heading home. Each one carefully assembles the box of food, searches out special requests and tries to problem solve through different obstacles.  What food do we have today for someone who recently lost most of their teeth? Are their nuts in this brand of breakfast cereal?  Do we have any 100% apple juice boxes suitable for a child’s school lunch? These are all common issues the volunteers have to work through.

Each morning we try to gauge how many families we will serve.  We look at the previous years numbers and we try to identify any events that may increase or decrease demand.  Is it a Monday or a Wednesday?  Are child tax credits issued today?  Is it a PD day or a long weekend coming up?  Then we look at how much food we have on hand and set a quota so that our food will last over the next three to five-days.

Our volunteers then take the food slips and based on the quota on each item, assemble the box based on the family size and what people have marked off on their food slip.

“Packing hampers is an easy job that allows you to interact with the public…sometimes it can be difficult to deal with all the over the top demands for things like toilet paper, sugar or shampoo. But it’s all worth it in the end! I never knew how many people rely on the support of social assistance and food banks.”

“Learning the quotas is a little intimidating at first, especially when there are a lot of different foods on the table. But you get a lot of practice so it doesn’t take long to catch on. Although sometimes Raymond will try to make a funny quota like one cream for families of 16 people or more, thinking we won’t give any out. Then I remember packing a hamper for family that was eligible for that.”

“Sometimes I get so excited and start packing without realizing that they didn’t need everything I’ve put in it. And sometimes it’s hard to remember all the details of the many special diets people face, but the diet cards that staff have made help make it easier to double-check that I’ve done things right. And when in doubt I ask, everyone is so easy to talk to and we’re all a team. No one expects you to do this alone, which gives me a lot of confidence to help out.”

“Volunteers don’t always work – there’s a social aspect too. It’s a lot of fun.”

Taking a second to pause in packing the hamper to model some of the food items available today.

The volunteers who come in really do make working here fun! No matter how busy it is, we always seem to share many laughs throughout the day. But when it’s time to close up shop or say goodbye to someone at the end of their shift, we always like to provide them with a verbal thank you for all their hard work throughout their time here. For all the volunteers we have yet to hug, and all the volunteers to come, just remember that each smile we share is meant as a thank you for all your service and dedication to pack hampers. We truly wouldn’t be able to do any of this without you!!

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